Taking Society to the Net

Remarks delivered at the Sarasota International Design Summit

27 Oct 2008

Part 2

Taking Society to the Net

This portion of the lecture was heavily inspired by the brilliant and visionary work of my dear friend and philosophical mentor, Mark Pesce.  Thank you, Mark, for your fecund cranium!

The modern rate of innovation knows no precedent.  Today we are innovating faster than yesterday, and that rate will be faster still tomorrow.

It took us 3.8 billion years to evolve from microbes to Australopithecus, but only about another 200,000 years to go from proto-human to global civilization.

We modern humans are the only creatures on the planet today capable of giving meaningful voice to ideas of any complexity and sharing those ideas with others.  It is the sharing of ideas among humans that has caused the rate of technological innovation to increase exponentially, if not asymptotically.  Every so often, we invent a new technology that increases the rate at which ideas can be shared and broadly inculcated.  And that act of sharing moves us faster along to the next idea, and so on.  La vitesse!

With the invention of paper we gained the ability to memorialize our ideas on a portable substrate easily shipped to distant minds.  The movable type printing press helped us more easily make copies of our ideas in books.  The steam engine made long distance travel easier so ideas could be shared face to face.  The telegraph, radio, and the telephone permitted instantaneous idea transmission to practically anywhere on the planet.  Then, of course, the television with the pretty pictures and the 24-hour news and the American Idol…

And today, roughly 1.5 billion people use the internet, and over half the population of the planet subscribes to a mobile telephone service.  Let me repeat that: over half the population of the planet subscribes to a mobile telephone service.  Over 2.4 million emails are sent globally every second.  A client in the biz recently told me that over 5 million text messages are sent per minute in the UK alone.  Twitter didn’t exist as a company before May 2007; in August, 2008, Twitter processed about 3 million tweets per day.  China alone boasts about 80 million blogs.

We are now (almost) all connected, (almost) all the time.   Author and futurist Mark Pesce calls this hyperconnectivity.  Our degree of connectedness grows exponentially every year, and gives rise to a concomitant power to socialize and form relationships.

We have been social since before we were apes.   Humans cannot survive in solitude.  Our sociability is finely tuned.  We play well with others.  It’s deeply coded in our brains.

According to anthropologist Robin Dunbar, each human brain is capable of keeping track of about 150 close social relationships at a time.  Your Dunbar number is 150.  That’s where your viable population of friends maxes out.

To route around this cranial limit over the millennia on our long march to the modern world, we’ve invented roles and rules, hierarchies and monarchies, all to reduce the number of relationships we need to tax our brains with.  Know the king, know the country.  Keep your horse on the left of the oncoming stranger so you can engage in more dexterous swordplay, should the need arise.  Sign contracts to govern your business deals.  All of these things are shorthand actions suited to a world populated by brains than can only truly know and trust in a mere 150 relationships at once.

Middle management exists because after a company grows to a certain size (150 people?), a single chief can’t track all pertinent operational functions alone.  Vice Presidents have jobs because there is no direct dashboard from factory floor to CEO.

I am not a Facebook poweruser by any stretch.  At this moment, I’ve got 247 Facebook friends and that number has flattened out significantly over the last few weeks as I have exhausted the places where my reali life friends can be found.  I follow 193 people on Twitter and 162 people follow me, though that last number is growing by 2 or 3 daily.  All of these numbers exceed my cranially encoded Dunbar number.

So what do I call these people?  Surely they’re not all my friends in any meaningful sense of the word.  My Dunbar number of 150 prohibits that.  We need a new ontology of relationships to adapt to the technology that connects us with people we’ve never met in person, or haven’t seen in decades, but still consider, in some form, friends.

My kids are growing up with digitally-mediated hyperconnectivity written on their hearts.  The age of all-to-all is the only social world that they will ever know – a world where each of us can forge a relationship with anyone else, and everyone else, as the need and the will arise.  With the right tools, my kids’ capacity for relationships will be without bound.  With the right tools, my kids won’t need some of the shorthand structures erected by prior generations to alleviate the mental pressure of relationship management.

In the age of all-connected-to-all, we need new methods of qualifying and categorizing people and our relationships with them.  We need tools that augment our capacity for “friendship.”

Our heretofore useful structures for operating society are now seen as chokepoints, forms of censorship really.  And we should not copy them into our digital lives if we can avoid it.  Any role whose value is derived from privileged access to arcana is dead.  The internet means the end of hierarchy, the end of censorship.  As John Gilmore famously said, “The internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”  The internet means the end of walled gardens.

My kids will be accustomed to unearthing the truth at every turn.  There will be no hiding from it.  The internet means the end of getting away with dishonesty.  We are rushing headlong into a world where the only product is authenticity, the only currency is trust, and we will all stand or fall entirely on our reputation, which will be instantly accessible to all.

It may even come to pass that we finally begin to integrate into our governance the concept of the online world as its own place, a world hegemony divorced from geography, anointed with its own universal laws and rules.  A civilization unto itself.  How quaint it will seem for future generations who know nothing but global uniformity to reflect back on our time when the laws we must obey change depending on the particular hunk of the planet we happen to live on.  Is the net the end of territorial jurisdiction?

And is it really much of a stretch from there to ponder a world of pure, direct democracy, where everyone participates on every issue they feel competent to vote on, with expert crowdsourced help always at the ready?  The net can vote on everything.  If you can crowdsource the winner of American Idol to the tune of some 30-50 million text messaged votes per week, why not crowdsource votes of all kinds?  Why not crowdsource the presidency?  Is there any reason why that office needs to be held by a single person?  After all, isn’t ruling the free world a lot to ask out of one person?  Why not crowdsource that very bastion of civilization, the courtroom jury of 12 good persons and true?  Does it have to be 12?  Can it not be 12 million?

Well, I’ll tell you why not.  Because we don’t really always play so nice, after all.  Yes, we’re all getting connected; yes, the hierarchies are flattening.  The walls around the more rigid parts of our ancient habits are showing some cracks.  But we have a long way to go.

“Real reporting existed for a few years in the 90’s… until journalists started dying because of it.” — Vladimir Semago, former Russian Parliamentarian

Parts of the world still don’t run like my parts do.

Every single person who applied for a permit to protest during the Beijing Olympics was arrested and jailed.  In August of 2008, the Chinese saw that they could oppress everyone, round up peaceful dissidents, wipe out neighborhoods, conscript thousands to serve the Olympic effort, and the rest of the world would stand up and say, “Great work!”

As one senior Chinese Government official put it, “only the North Koreans could have done this better.”

With ideas like that out in the crowd, can the crowd really be trusted?  How do we turn the crowd into a community?  How do we go from mob to task force?

If it does nothing else, the net takes what we are and amplifies it.  So what are we?  Are we gentle collaborators or are we fearful bullies?  We had better answer that question, and soon.  Because the repuconomy is coming.

Someone out there is going to be deciding whether to give each of us the good housekeeping seal of approval, or not.  And it will matter.  Our survival may depend on it.

How do we overcome our fears and learn how to work together as a community?

We need to be able to trust in the authenticity of those around us that they will treat us fairly and will report fairly on how we treat them.  We need to be able to enforce the metes and bounds of our relationships with them, without the outmoded controls and structures of the analogue world.

How do we do that?

Stay Tuned.

Tomorrow: Introducing Company 2.0

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