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.
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,
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,” 
we could opt for a “comprehensive
design science revolution”,
transforming the mobile telephone into a cultural probe, amplifier,
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,
transforming the mobile telephone is inherently a revolutionary
We therefore propose revolution. But
“revolution without revelation is slavery.”
Hence we must seek enlightenment in “the
wisdom of crowds,”
for the mobile telephone is the medium of the crowd in its technologically-mediated
incarnation, the “swarm”.
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.
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
Stage one is the age of discovery, where the
user simply clicks into oblivion with an endless dromomania,
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.
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.
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, 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
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”, the video
of the Chinese university students singing a Backstreet Boys
song, or footage of an exploding
whale. 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
To understand what is going on, we must ask
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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,
which accelerate and hyperdistribute the accumulation of social
currency. We have become a species of “cool-hunters”;
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,
managed to embody the principle of the “six
degrees of separation”,
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.
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.
to Part Two >>
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3. R. Buckminster Fuller, Critical
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4. Mark Pesce, “The Executable Dreamtime”,
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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.
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
20. William Gibson, Pattern Recognition,
Berkley Books, New York, 2003, p. 41
22. Clive Thompson, “Meet the Life
Hackers”, The New York Times, 16 October 2005
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
Mark's blog: hyperpeople.
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