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December 14 , 2005 | Prologue: Dreading the Call

A few weeks ago, just before the Australian Broadcasting Corportation (ABC) turned on the cameras to tape the season’s final episode of The New Inventors, the show’s host, James O’Laughlin, put me on the spot.   Since I am described as a futurist when I am introduced as a panelist, James asked me (horror of horrors) for a prediction.

“Alright,” I said, thinking furiously, and aiming a furrowed brow at the studio audience, “In five years’ time you’ll be using your mobile phones ten times as much as you do today.”

The audience burst into a great, wearied groan.   Not a gasp of disbelief, nor the laughter of dismissal, but the pained sigh of resignation.   The audience instinctively recognized the inevitability of my prediction, and dreaded it.    Why such dread?   With telephony, human communication has grown from a phenomenon constrained by shouting distance to something which allows us to enjoy never-ending conversations with our friends around the world at nearly no cost.   We enjoy talking on the phone; we collectively share a uniquely human pleasure in communication for its own sake.   Yet the thought of spending more time doing more communicating struck that audience, at that moment, as something to be avoided.   That moment set us on course to this paper.

The disconnect between the joy of communication and the Procrustean Bed of our telecommunications technologies deserves our full attention.   We spend a lot of time developing new telecommunications technologies without considering about how they might fit their users, or, as Marshal McLuhan would put it, shape the users to fit the technology[1].   Every communication technique limits the kinds of messages which can be sent across it, and additionally limits how both sender and receiver frame these messages cognitively, emotionally, and socially.

It is our assertion that the telephone as it exists at present is largely a set of vestigial organs, poorly suited to its actual task, and that the resentment engendered by the device is an inevitable by-product of a continuing series of unsatisfactory interactions with it.   Such a conclusion immediately casts into doubt the entire recent history of the design of the telephone, which has been rife with invention, yet has never been quite successful, because none of these designs have ever been driven by the mass of individuals who use the phone.

We also assert that the essential design principles which must be embodied in the telephone can only be discerned, not invented.   The telephone is not a style, nor a fashion, but, rather, is something closer to a human language, in that it requires immersion within that language to acquire mastery of it.   We assert the necessity of observation before action.   We must watch how people communicate before we can understand what their communication needs are; only from this observation can we draw any reasonable conclusions.   Fifteen years ago, this would have been a very simple affair, as telephone calls were two-way conversations.  

Today, all human communication is threaded, multi-participatory, multimodal, asynchronous, proximally indistinct, ubiquitous, continuous, and entirely pervasive.    Given this enormous change in the ground conditions, it seems perfectly sensible that we should rethink the basic instrument of electronic communication.  

As the most concrete and pervasive manifestation of cyberspace, the mobile telephone establishes new cultural patterns of behavior.   If, through observation, we can learn the form of these new patterns, we could design a device which plays into and amplifies them.   Instead of “the street finds its own use for things,” [2] we could opt for a “comprehensive design science revolution[3], transforming the mobile telephone into a cultural probe, amplifier, and filter.

The question before us is whether we – as designers, engineers, academics and media theorists – secretly dread the call of the future, or whether we will approach this moment as an opportunity for play.   In free play, results are unimportant; the performance is all.   Therefore, we need have no goal beyond having a good time.   Playing with mobile telephones is like playing with words, because the medium which transmits those words leaves its indelible mark on the message.   Since words shape the world[4], transforming the mobile telephone is inherently a revolutionary act.

We therefore propose revolution.   But “revolution without revelation is slavery.”[5]   Hence we must seek enlightenment in “the wisdom of crowds,”[6] for the mobile telephone is the medium of the crowd in its technologically-mediated incarnation, the “swarm[7].   Studying the mobile telephone in situ is the only way toward any understanding of its actual role in human communication.   We must draw our lessons from what we can observe in the behavior of swarms.

One: Emergent Social Networks

We take it as a given that nearly everyone living in the Western world has access to and enjoys the benefits of globally pervasive, continuous and ubiquitous data network.    The main access points into this network are desktop computers and laptops – at least, that is the popular perception.   However, there are at least half again as many mobile handsets in the world as internet-accessible computers.   The vast majority of these handsets can easily make connections to the Internet.   But these devices are not thought of as Internet attached; and this is the first of the “telephone repairs” which must be performed.

Upon connection to the Internet, each individual passes through a series of “evolutionary stages” as the technology of pervasive, instantaneous communication becomes ontologically incorporated, forming one component of the individual’s relationship to the world of being.   These stages appear to be replicated, in a scale-invariant way, both within the individual and across the swarm of internet users as a whole.   For this reason, the history of the human use of the internet is reflected in patterns of individual use; the individual follows the patterns established by the swarm.   To adopt a maxim from biology, ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.[8]

Stage one is the age of discovery, where the user simply clicks into oblivion with an endless dromomania[9], never resting, never ceasing, but always moving on, and on and on.   The behavior here is analogous to a kid in a candy store, or a yeast cell in a bath of nutrients; both will eat themselves sick.   The user is excited and empowered, and thinks only of quantity, not quality.    Yet this constant feeding, this restlessness, does not satisfy; once the user is convinced that this wealth will not simply vanish, a locus of reflective behavior emerges, and stage two, the age of discrimination, begins.  

Where there is enough and more, strategies shift from simple acquisition to meeting the needs of the moment in the most effective way.   Thus did the NCSA/CERN exhaustive list of web sites evolve into Yahoo!’s categories, only to be supplanted by Alta Vista’s free-text search, which in turn was replaced by Google’s Page Rank.   Each of these represent a refinement of the strategies which preceded them, and, in good evolutionary fashion, each replaced its predecessors through the natural selection pressure of the swarm[10].   This natural selection pressure is itself scale-invariant; the same pressures at work within the individual are also exhibited by the swarm.   When an individual finds a better way to get what they want, when they want it, that technique is broadly adopted, and thus tends to drive its competitors into extinction.   Although all of the search techniques developed since 1993 do still exist (except for the NSCA/CERN master list of web sites), natural selection pressure has favored Google’s Page Rank with the highest level of “fitness” for the current ecology of the Internet.   Google appears to understand this, subjecting its own methodologies to unceasing evolutionary variation, drawing its mutations from a study of the activities of the swarm, and adjusting its own algorithmic DNA to match[11].

Once the user masters techniques of discrimination, stage three, the age of “virtual communities” begins.   The user spontaneously forms networks of communication – “social networks,” in the current parlance – which sit above the pervasive any-to-any Internet.   In addition to the natural social relationships of proximity, kinship, and friendship, new social relationships bounded by common interest – communities – emerge.   These virtual communities[12], which bear only accidental relations to proximity, kinship or culture, exist only because there is a medium which can support the constant reinforcement of these connections.   Without cyberspace, there is no virtual community; within cyberspace, virtual communities are the rule.   The unified swarm explores itself, and discovers patterns in its variation; where these patterns find resonance, sub-swarms form within the swarm, and communities emerge.   Again, this same process takes place within the individual; once the torrent has been tamed, once the dial can be tuned, the individual becomes aware of others, who have tamed and tuned to the same channels, seeking communion with them.

Stage four, representing the present day, is the age of the swarming hyperdistribution[13] of media.   Every individual harnesses their own social network to create their own media distribution network.   We have, over the past twenty-four months, rapidly moved into an time when every single individual has become his or her own network.   We hyperdistribute much which comes our way, forwarding email, links to websites, podcasts, video clips, Flash animations, even 3D games.    We spend an ever-greater portion of our attention forwarding (i.e., publishing) relevant media into the relevant links in our social network.   This, right now, is where we really are, both as individuals and as a swarm.   Each of us is building and becoming our own media distribution network.   Occasionally we create the content in these networks, but far more often – even if we are full-time, professional media producers – we pass content through our networks.  

This is the reason that eighty million people have forwarded links to JibJab’s “This Land[14], the video of the Chinese university students singing a Backstreet Boys song, or footage of an exploding whale[15].   Although these examples are exceptional because of their breadth of distribution, the same processes are taking place, in a scale-invariant fashion, throughout the entirety of the swarm, sub-swarms, and in individual members.

To understand what is going on, we must ask ourselves “why?”[16]   Why do we forward media through our social networks?   Why has this become the consuming task of the present era of the Internet?   One possible explanation can be drawn from the study of human social networks.   These networks are thoroughly dynamic, and subject to selection pressures of their own because of the concept, from anthropology, of the Dunbar Number.   The Dunbar Number states that the number of first-degree connections within a social network (i.e., the number of individuals who are directly connected to every other member within a social network), can never be greater than 150.   The reason for this is not known, but the Dunbar Number seems to be strongly correlated to the size of the forebrain.   Figure 1 shows the correlation between forebrain mass and the number of nodes in the social network of humans and apes[17]:

Great apes, such as chimpanzees and gorillas, who are very close to human beings in their neural structure, can maintain social networks – “troops” – with between 30-60 members, while the lesser primates form smaller groups.   Thus, it can be inferred that the management of social networks is a very high-order cognitive task.  

It is already well-known that humans or apes who are ostracized from their social networks spontaneously age and die; their endocrine systems rebel, and begin destroying the body[18].   Individuals who fail to establish strong social networks will fail to thrive, and thus fail to pass their genes and memes along to their offspring.   The inverse is also believed to be true; human beings with strong social networks tend to live longer, healthier lives than those weakly connected to the community of man.   The development of dense social networks may be our evolutionary response to this essential feature of neuroendocrinology, a response with both biological and memetic components.  

We establish and maintain our social networks through strategies of interaction.   In the Great Apes, this interaction principally consists of grooming and food-sharing. One analogous behavior, in network-connected humans, is information-sharing.   The careful balance which weights the relative value of the nodes in our social networks is determined by the interactions between ourselves and our first-degree nodes.   Obviously, proximity is a strong component of the weighting; individuals we see every day naturally have a heavier weighting in our social networks.   But for those nodes which are not proximal – individuals who exist, ontologically, in virtual space – weighting is determined by the quality of informational interactions.  

We thrive within social networks which have become more fluid, no longer bounded by physical proximity, where informational exchange is the sole arbiter of rank; this means that the selection pressure to remain within in a social network is stronger than at any time before.   We are all working harder than ever to maintain our position within our partially virtualized social networks.   Since information transactions are one way we can establish and maintain our position within these networks, we are placing an increasing emphasis on “the three F’s”: finding, filtering and forwarding the key pieces of information which will reinforce relationships within our networks.   Each informational transaction produces, as its result, some “social currency.”   While social currency is not necessarily transferable between social networks, within a social network it is the determinant of one’s rank.  

Thus we see the emergence “taste makers” within a given community, who “lead” that community through their steady accumulation of social currency.   Now that this has been recognized as a successful strategy (not only by individuals but also by commercial organizations), we are rapidly adopting the technique; self-similarly, the swarm and sub-swarms are also adopting it.   This explains the recent emergence of technologies like del.icio.us[19], and digg, which accelerate and hyperdistribute the accumulation of social currency.   We have become a species of “cool-hunters[20]; the hunters who can bag the biggest, most impressive game are given precedence within the community.   This is the why behind the what.

We are just at the beginning of the era of digital social networks.   The efforts thus far have been interesting experiments, but they have universally failed to realize their enormous potential to accelerate the accumulation of social currency within social networks.   The earliest digital social networks, such as Friendster, Orkut, LinkedIn, MySpace, and FaceBook.com, managed to embody the principle of the “six degrees of separation[21], producing a digital representation of a social network composed of both proximal and virtual members, but had neither the capacity nor the design intent to embody the dynamic nature of human social networks, which vary from moment to moment, and task to task.   Existing digital social networks treat the human being as a static entity, a category error of the first order.   A human social network is a living thing, and must be treated as such.   This mistake is so fundamental that it needs to be highlighted against another example: would Google’s Page Rank remain relevant if Google ceased its constant devouring of web pages?   Page Rank would quickly grow stale and become useless.   In this sense, digital social networks are like sharks: they must constantly move, and eat, if they are to survive.

Digital social networks, in order to be at all useful, must be active, and extraordinarily well-fed.   Existing digital social networks are designed to be passive; they require constant human intervention to reflect the dynamically evolving relationship between the nodes within the network.   This is neither feasible nor reasonable; we would need to spend more time maintaining the digital representation of our social network than maintaining the network itself.   This is a basic failure in design.   A digital social network needs to draw from our data shadows constantly, like a digital vampire, building its soul out of our actions in virtual space.

We have arrived at the forward frontier of the evolution of networked humanity, both as swarm and individual.   This paper has outlined the problem in precise terms; what remains now is to describe a solution.   Collectively, we have created a whole host of ad-hoc techniques which we use to manage our social networks: we have mailing lists and address books, and these help, but we haven’t put any computational intelligence behind these techniques.  Furthermore, these informal techniques, developed from need, but poorly fit to their tasks, are losing their utility, bending beneath an increasing selection pressure[22]. Fortunately, selection pressure drives evolution; it drives both the need and the capability to experiment with a multitude of forms – mutations, if you will – in search of solutions which will relieve some of the selection pressure, producing a higher level of selection fitness.

Now that we have an in situ understanding of the swarm, next week, in part two, we will turn our attentions to the telephone.

Continue to Part Two >>


1. Marshal McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Random House, New York, 1964, p. 25
2. William Gibson, Neuromancer, Ace Science Fiction, New York, 1984, p. 57
3. R. Buckminster Fuller, Critical Path, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1980, p. 37
4. Mark Pesce, “The Executable Dreamtime”, The Book of Lies, Disinformation Press, New York, pp. 26-31
5. Timothy Leary, The Politics of Ecstasy, Ballantine Books, New York, 1984., p. 209
6. Philip Ball, Critical Mass: How One Thing Becomes Another, Random House, New York, 2004, p. 30
7. Kevin Kelley, Out of Control: The Rise of Neo-Biological Civilization, Warner Books, New York, 1995, p. 12
8 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Recapitulation_theory
9. Paul Virillio, Speed and Politics, Semiotext(e), New York, 1989, p. 10
10. Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1990, p. 235
11. The New York Times, 5 November 2005
12. Howard Rheingold, The Virtual Community, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2000, p 15.
13. Mark Pesce, “The Audience Takes Control”, Media Hungary 2005, Tihany, Hungary, p.
14. http://news.com.com/Political+parody+draws+Web+crowd/2100-1028_3-5312081.html
15. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exploding_whale
16. Jonathan Nicholas, presentation at Slattery IT Internet Watch 15 November 2005, Sydney
17. Journal of Human Evolution (1992) 20, 469-493
18. Howard Bloom, The Lucifer Principle, Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, 1997, p. 205
19. http://del.icio.us/
20. William Gibson, Pattern Recognition, Berkley Books, New York, 2003, p. 41
21. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Small_world_phenomenon
22. Clive Thompson, “Meet the Life Hackers”, The New York Times, 16 October 2005

Mark Pesce is the co-creator of the Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML) - the first 3D interface to the internet - and the founder of the Interactive Media Program at USC's School of Cinema-Television. In 2000, Ballantine Books published Pesce's The Playful World: How Technology is Transforming our Imagination, which explored the world of interactivity through a detailed examination of the Furby, LEGO’s Mindstorms and the Playstation 2. In late 2003, Pesce was invited to the Australian Film Television and Radio School, with a mandate to redesign the curriculum to incorporate the new opportunities offered by interactive media.

Read Mark's blog: hyperpeople.

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/ or send a letter to Creative Commons, 559 Nathan Abbott Way, Stanford, California 94305, USA.

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