The Technium

Why the Impossible Happens More Often


[Translations: Japanese]

I’ve had to persuade myself to believe in the impossible more often. In the past several decades I’ve encountered a series of ideas that I was conditioned to think were impossibilities, but which turned out to be good practical ideas. For instance, I had my doubts about the online flea market called eBay when it first came out. Pay money to a stranger selling a car you have not seen? Everything I had been taught about human nature suggested this could not work. Yet today, strangers selling automobiles is the major profit center for the very successful eBay corporation.

I thought the idea of an encyclopedia that anyone could change at any time to be a non-starter, a hopeless romantic idea with no chance of working. It seemed to go against my general understanding of human nature and group interaction. I was so wrong. Today I use Wikipedia at least once a day.

Twenty years ago if I had been paid to convince an audience of reasonable, educated people that in 20 years time we’d have street and satellite maps for the entire world on our personal hand held phone devices — for free — and with street views for many cities — I would not be able to do it. I could not have made an economic case for how this could come about “for free.” It was starkly impossible back then.

These supposed impossibilities keep happening with increased frequency. Everyone “knew” that people don’t work for free, and if they did, they could not make something useful without a boss. But today entire sections of our economy run on software instruments created by volunteers working without pay or bosses. Everyone knew humans were innately private beings, yet the impossibility of total open round-the-clock sharing still occurred. Everyone knew that humans are basically lazy, and they would rather watch than create, and they would never get off their sofas to create their own TV. It would be impossible that millions of amateurs would produce billions of hours of video, or that anyone would watch any of it. Like Wikipedia, or Linux, YouTube is theoretically impossible. But here this impossibility is real in practice.

This list goes on, old impossibilities appearing as new possibilities daily. But why now? What is happening to disrupt the ancient impossible/possible boundary?

In a word: emergence. As far as I can tell the impossible things that happen now are in every case manifestations of a new, bigger level of organization. They are the result of large-scale collaboration, or immense collections of information, or global structures, or gigantic real-time social interactions. Just as a tissue is a new, bigger level of organization for a bunch of individual cells, these new social structures are a new bigger level for individual humans. And in both cases the new level breeds emergence. New behaviors emerge from the new level that were impossible at the lower level. Tissue can do things that cells can’t. The collectivist organizations of wikipedia, Linux, the web can do things that industrialized humans could not.

Humans have long invented new social organizations, from law, courts, irrigation systems, schools, governments, libraries, and at the largest scale, civilization itself. These social instruments are what makes us human — and what makes our behavior “impossible” from the vantage of animals. For instance when we invented writing, written records and laws enabled a type of egalitarianism not possible in our cousins the primates, and and not present in oral cultures. The cooperation and coordination breed by irrigation and agriculture produced yet more impossible behaviors of anticipation and preparation, and sensitivity to the future. Human society unleashed all kinds of previously impossible human behaviors into the biosphere.

The technium is accelerating the creation of new impossibilities by continuing to invent new social organizations. The genius of eBay was its invention of cheap, easy, and quick reputation status. Strangers could sell to strangers at a great distance because we now had a technology to quickly assign persistent reputations to those beyond our circle. That lowly innovation opened up a new kind of higher level coordination that permitted a new kind of exchange (remote purchasing among strangers) that was impossible before. The “revert log” button on Wikipedia, which made it easier to restore a vandalized passage than to vandalize it, unleashed a new higher organization of trust, emphasizing one facet of human behavior not enabled at a large scale before.

We have just begun to fiddle with social communications. Hypertext, wi-fi, GPS location services are just the beginning. The majority of the most amazing communication inventions that are possible have not been invented yet. We are also just in the infancy of turning on at a truly global scale. When we are woven together into a global real-time society, the impossibilities will really start to erupt. It is not necessary that we invent some kind of autonomous global consciousness. It is only necessary that we connect everyone to everyone else. Hundreds of miracles that seem impossible today will be possible with this shared human awareness.

I am looking forward to having my mind changed a lot in the coming years. I think we’ll be surprised by how many things we assumed were “natural” for humans are not really, and how many impossible ideas are possible. “Everyone knows” that humans are warlike, and like war, but I would guess organized war will become less and less attractive over time as new means of social conflict and social conflict resolution arise at a global level. Not that people will cease killing each other; just that deliberate ritualistic battle over territories will be displaced by other activities — like terrorism, extreme sports, subversion, mafias, and organized crime. The new technologies of social media will unleash whole new ways to lie, cheat, steal and kill. As they are already doing. (Nefarious hackers use social media to identify corporate network administrators, and their personal off-time hobbies, and then spoof a gift of a cool new product from their favorite company, which when opened, takes over their computer and thence the network they are in charge of.) Yes, many of the impossible things we can expect will be impossibly bad.

They will be beyond our imagining because the level at which they are enabled is hard for us to picture. In large groups the laws of statistics take over and our brains have not evolved to do statistics. The amount of data tracked is inhuman; the magnitudes of giga, peta, and exa don’t really mean anything to us; it’s the vocabulary of machines. Collectively we behave differently than individuals. Much more importantly, as individuals we behave differently in collectives.

This has been true a long while. What’s new is the velocity at which we a headed into this higher territory of global connectivity. We are swept up in a tectonic shift toward large, fast, social organizations connecting us in novel ways. There may be a million different ways to connect a billion people, and each way will reveal something new about us. Something hidden previously. Others have named this emergence the Noosphere, or MetaMan, or Hive Mind. We don’t have a good name for it yet.

Noosphere 320 LowRes 1 The Noosphere Sculpture by Yves Jeason

I’ve used the example of the bee before. One could exhaustively study a honey bee for centuries and never see in the lone individual any of the behavior of a bee hive. it is just not there, and can not emerge until there are a mass of bees. A single bee lives 6 weeks, so a memory of several years is impossible, but that’s how long a hive of individual bees can remember. Humanity is migrating towards its hive mind. Most of what “everybody knows” about us is based on the human individual. Collectively, connected humans will be capable of things we cannot imagine right now. These future phenomenon will rightly seem impossible. What’s coming is so unimaginable that the impossibility of wikipedia will recede into outright obviousness.

Connected, in real time, in multiple dimensions, at an increasingly global scale, in matters large and small, with our permission, we will operate at a new level, and we won’t cease surprising ourselves with impossible achievements.

My prediction is that in the coming years our biggest surprises — the ones that aren’t predicted — will be the result some new method of large scale social interactions. While we will get good at predicting the next advance of technological innovation, we won’t get very good at predicting what happens with the hive mind. And exploring the hive mind — the thousands of ways in which we can connect and reconnect ourselves — will be the chief activity of our civilization in the near term. If I am right then we’ll have to get better at believing in the impossible.




Comments
  • yclipse

    Playing off Carl Jung, I call it the Collective Conscious. 

    >Others have named this emergence the Noosphere, or MetaMan, or Hive Mind. We don’t have a good name for it yet.

    • Bjones

      The Borg?

    • http://twitter.com/pjacquot Patrice Jacquot

      Collective Intelligence

    • Emryetter

      “Noosphere” seems to be playing in my mind as “Noose Fear”! 

  • Emlyn O’Regan

    It does need a name. I’ve been calling it the Adhocracy, or Adhocratic World System, the latter specifically referring back to Immanuel Wallerstein’s (Capitalist) World Systems Theory. 

    I think it’s important to juxtapose the two, because this new thing *is* a system; the instances of it (wikpedia, the arab spring, Anonymous attacking Sony, even the evolution of IED technologies in Iraq) are recognisably related (the common factor is largely leaderless, network mediated ad-hoc organisation).

    Both systems have their own cognition of sorts. The capitalist world system is corporations and governments and traditional NGOs, thinking in a language of scarce resources, power, and single narrative arcs involving (non gender specific) great men. The adhocracy is emergent system stuff; evolutionary, endlessly scalable, narrative free, illegible. 

    Do they understand one another? The capitalist world system (maybe I should say “institutional” world system??) is noticing the other, and trying to interact with it; a great example of that (and its failure, largely) is the weird relationship the US govt has with the internet; it supports internet freedom out of one side of its mouth, repression out of the other. Classic power stuff.

    The adhocracy springs out of the forehead of the capitalist world system, of course, so has some contextual awareness of it baked in. However, it seems to disregard it and just plow on, using the darwinian logic inherent in billions of people interacting with transaction costs approaching zero. It’s not in its nature to recognise singular anything, include a single competing system. 

    I think we’re in for some interesting (at least wildly unpredictable and possible physically dangerous) decades as these two systems collide. I do think it’s inevitable that the adhocracy will replace the capitalist system eventually; money and traditional power based approaches will recede into niches, becoming one (minor) way things can be done amongst many, many others, and having to continually justify their existence in competitions with other systems in every niche they tries to occupy. But, until that point, it’s black swans all the way down… we need to hang on to our hats!

    • Jon Husband

      I’ve been calling ‘it’  wirearchy for the past few years … ‘archy’ being the Greek suffix for ‘the organizing principle of a given social system.  See http://www.wirearchy.com

      There’s no ‘archy’ word for the wired world in which we now live .. people talk instead about network dynamics or social-this-and-that  .. but I believe that wirearchy connotes the archy (the patterns we see emerging) of the wired conditions and context in which many of us now operate.

    • Maneesh_DANGI

      Impressive… Just about two weeks ago, India witnessed a adhocracy of sorts, when a common man stood up for the cause of other commoners and suddenly, we saw mobs queing up, raising voice and getting elected leaders pay heed to their demands. Traditional media, and new wires helped Indians unite, quickly. It’s amazing, how diverse people could come together, in such q short span of time without any great leader.

  • gvanderleun

    Alice laughed. ‘There’s no use trying,’ she said ‘one can’t believe impossible things.”I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. ‘When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast. 

  • gvanderleun

    A name? When it wants to it will tell us its name.

    • martypdx

      We could ask it

      • gvanderleun

        It wouldn’t respond. It’s a bitch.

  • http://markrvickers.com/ Mark Vickers

    Brilliant.

    Yes, it will be fascinating to learn more ourselves in this process. I think this “hive mind” has always existed to some degree in our species, always larger than the individual. Maybe this is what culture is. But technology gives it greater visibility, more features, and even senses. I’ve been thinking of it as the Reticulum, though I envision that as extending beyond humanity itself.

    I like the Adhocracy because it implies a fair amount of focus on how social systems operate, and I agree these are undergoing a revolution that’s hard to predict. I don’t know how it will interact with the capitalist world. Maybe there’s a merger rather than a clash. I remember reading Stoss’s short story “Lobster” years ago and being dazzled not just by the writing but by the depiction of the clash between capitalism and open source. I expect it will be a complex dance.

  • Bernini1594

    Insightful comments. It helps to have innovative thinkers likevthis post comments. As a curious eclectic individual I get a charge out of new ideas. Thank you for the posting and for the Facebook friend who put it on their page. Bernini1594

  • http://www.mypolokwane.com NicP

    A brilliant piece illustrating good use of the human mind. Going to tell all my friends to read this. Thank you!

  • http://www.howardlindzon.com howardlindzon

    Great stuff.  thx

  • John Graves

    Currently reading The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick (Mar 1, 2011) which suggests oral culture (our long, unrecorded, evolutionary past) was more collective than written culture (our recent, fragmented, symbolic abstraction of life). If you combine that idea with the ideas of Cognitive Surplus: How Technology Makes Consumers into Collaborators by Clay Shirky (May 31, 2011), a natural emergent new means for collaborative communication involves crossing back into using spoken words via text-to-speech and speech recognition technology. Collaboratively building tools and content for this new type of human-to-human-via-computer-speech interaction is the goal of the open source project called Wiki-to-Speech. For example, here is a Wiki-to-Speech presentation on stigmergy: http://dl.dropbox.com/u/12838403/20110721/stigmergy.htm

  • Teresa Nielsen Hayden

    This thing you’re talking about needs a commonly understood name. If we don’t find a good one for it, some uninspired commercial hack will stick a bad name on it that will generate years of confusion, resentment, and misunderstanding.

    Thank you for reproducing the image of the Noosphere Sculpture. It’s the perfect illustration for this piece. “Noosphere” is of course not a new word, but when I first learned it, it was a passive label. At that time, hardly anyone imagined that we would someday see working noospheres, alive and in motion. 

    Even less did they imagine how eagerly individuals would awaken into this larger world. It used to be a common observation that “the average man” — that person we’ve stopped believing in — wasn’t interested in a life of the mind, and couldn’t handle self-directed intellectual leisure. There was a great deal of scoffing when personal computers first came on the market. Then the world-wide web bloomed — and suddenly everyone had something to say.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lourg Louis Rosas-Guyon

    I find it curious so many are interested in giving this phenomena a name…

    Otherwise, it seems you are describing a natural state that coincides with such a radical change via the Technium. The realm of the possible also shifted incredibly during the Industrial Revolution. Previously it was impossible to weave 100 yards of wool cloth per day and everyone knew it. The automatic loom made that impossibility commonplace.

    The Industrial Revolution also caused serious social change: the introduction of work for wages, the reorganization of the family unit, the decline of artisans, and rising urbanization just to name a few. 

    The changes we are experiencing now are ultimately of the same type — just with a new and improved network economy flavor! The difference is the rate of change since we have a much larger tool box to build upon than pre-Industrial humanity.

    Like you, I am curious to see what the next 10 years will bring.

    • http://www.projectsakinah.org Anas Coburn

      Where there is emergence, methinks an emergency is not far behind.

      • Kevin_Kelly

        That’s good! Great line. ANd I agree.

    • John Ware

      LRG – Right you are. Why do we have to give everything a name? Our constant urge to label everything, rationalize everything, contextualize everything and have stories, narratives, beginnings, middles, and ends will have disastrous effects on our collective creative and innovative psyche.

  • radioshenyen

    a phrase-fragment in an essay i read today – “the innocence of great distances” – for some reason comes to mind

  • http://www.wetmachine.com Jsundman

    I have written three novels about this thing. Mostly I call it “Overmind”. Synopses here: http://my-thoughts-exactly.wetmachine.com/content/strange-looping  A review of 1st of these, Acts of the Apostles, here: http://www.salon.com/technology/col/leon/2001/02/21/hacking_the_overmind

  • Dmnahl

    Carl Jung the collective unconscious, acts via cultural archetypes.

  • http://leighhimel.blogspot.com leigh

    I think you’ll like my presentation ecosystem marketing.  http://www.slideshare.net/leighhimel/greenman-marketing  

    i also think that mcluhan’s tedtrads would have done a better job at understanding the dynamics of things like ebay.  Might be something worth fiddling around with the next time you think (if ever you do again) that “it’s” impossible.  :)

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_W4CJMB5ZPI4PJNIQNP5IC42G2I Greta Ball

    I urge people to watch Adam Curtis’s latest documentary “All Watched Over by Computers of Infinite Grace” for a sense of balance and a little ironic awareness.

    Passing over the hyperbole and many inherent contradictions in this article, I would point out that there are numerous examples of oral societies that were just if not more egalitarian than our own, so I recommend the writer to go back to his anthropolgy texts, however the comparison with primates in the same breath was frankly mind-boggling. Anyway, most species are predicated on cooperative structures to survive; it’s not surprising and doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to understand it’s necessity, for animals or humans. Given our particular advantages regarding language and technology we have obviously developed more sophisticated structures, although this is a double edged sword, where the technology itself puts our existence at risk in very real ways, so is hardly a cause of unbridled celebration.

    I am very skeptical about the dream of technologically connecting minds for the greater good, especially since we have not developed any further than Descartes in terms of our understanding of the nature of mind itself. I can see the convienience for the military in pursuing such a goal but little further utility for humankind in making the neural network something more than metaphorical. Since it is empathy and wisdom that make us humane and you will never  program those particular elements, what would be the point of such connectivity, unless of course the prospect of giving up free will is appealing? I realise that there’s enough of you mechanists out there who would not feel particulalry concerned about that issue however, especially when there’s the prospect of becoming another Neo for goodness sake.

    To the matter of the beehive analogy in this piece, it’s a pretty and simplistic metaphor – who doesn’t like honey. But remember bees have a sting. I may only state that if it is an ordered and hard working society you are looking for there is no better example than Tsarist Russia. As the Queen Bee has her workers, the Tsar had his serfs, and all for the collective idea of that great hive, Mother Russia. Pure Leviathan, thank you Mr. Hobbes, but hardly an example of egalitarianism and “progress.” Here’s another couple of alternative names for collectives: Catholicism or the Caste system, I could go on. But there’s no one size fits all I’m afraid, if it’s global domination you’re after. I think that’s what the fable of Babel was meant to explain, so you hive builders beware. We may need a collective but we like to divide, being the contrary little minds we are.

    Scientific Utopianism, which this piece exemplifies is at least as old as Bacon’s time, and in many ways just as disturbingly regressive in terms of ideas about social stratification. The blinkered optimism of those who believe in technology as an Article of Faith borders on dangerously misplaced arrogance about the nature of evolution and “progress”; one that turns evolution from a blueprint for scientific endeavour into a religious credo or political ideology. This is of course nothing new, Social Darwinianism being almost as old as Darwin’s theory itself, and the moral justification for church and monarchy amongst other social ills. We’ve never really got over the Futurism of that period either. It still infects our philosophies with ideas of Destiny, Supermen and New World Orders that led from the eugenics of the US sterilization programs to the gas chambers of Auschwitz: but hey, that’s technology mixed with imagination, so me bad for being a party pooper.

    Matriarchy however, I am all for, as long as I’m Queen Bee of my particular collective consciousness: the drones really should learn their place.

    • Fred Mir

      If some oral societies could really be egalitarian, I guess it’s because they took the time to talk together, to understand their problems together, to find solutions together… Maybe our new communication tools could help us do the same… on a global scale ?

  • Bradley_j_Gregory

    Read “Fooled by randomness” and “The Black Swan” by Taleb for a fascinating insight into this phenomonon

  • http://www.facebook.com/john.kline.kurtz John Kline Kurtz

    It is interesting that a similar sort of collaborative operation took place in the land of Shinar several thousand years ago. They planned to build a city and a tower to reach into the heavens. It was said of those people, in that day several thousand years ago, that “nothing which they have imagined to do will be restrained from them.” I believe that mankind is created in God’s image and therefore He has built into them the creativity that is like that of the Creator. Along with our desire to “know” and to work, we exercise the formation of new technologies. I would assert that rather than being shocked that people emerge out of “laziness” to create, we might better be concerned with why we were lazy in the first place. Remember that from the beginning, there were experts in metal work. Perhaps we are not as smart as we think we are. Genesis 1-11 is full of insight, and is one of our earliest and best preserved written records of the history that this article mentions.

    We have a choice… (it is a distinction in worldviews)… to marvel at our own “emergence” and suffer the eminent fall of its pride or to marvel at the Creator and fulfill His plan.

    As a software developer and mathematician, I enjoy the pursuit of knowledge and innovation. This is an interesting topic to muse on. The Bible advised so long ago that we should learn from the “ant”. So in reality, this is nothing new. It is the general application of God’s insights for us. In my opinion, it is very exciting to watch and participate in, just as it is interesting to see how colonies of ants do their thing to find water and food in my house.

    Thanks for taking the time to write about this.

    • Mygodwilleatyourgod

      “Genesis 1-11 is full of insight, and is one of our earliest and best preserved written records of the history that this article mentions.”

      You spelled “pseudoscience” wrong. 

      • http://www.facebook.com/john.kline.kurtz John Kline Kurtz

        How is it spelled then? In other words, what is truth? Is the pseudoscience of evolution really science? Have at it…

    • Stardreamer

      Your post is an excellent example of “when the only tool you have is a hammer, it’s amazing how every problem starts to resemble a nail.” The rest of us are over here inventing new tools to solve problems that you can’t imagine out of existence; I hope someday you’ll come out of the corner and join us.

      • http://www.facebook.com/john.kline.kurtz John Kline Kurtz

        Certainly, God gave us much to discover, to invent, to form, and to dream, think and muse about! You use the same “hammer” that I use, the God-given intellect, ability to reason, use of logic and work. Many of the great scientific discoveries were made by scientists, who understood that the reason they could trust their intellect, reasoning, and logic to do work and investigate and invent was that the created world in which we live was created by God, who is a God of order. The very act of inventing, of designing, planning, proclaiming, building is from God. Please elaborate more on your “new tools” and your “problems”.

  • http://crisdelvallelife.blogspot.com/ CoreAn_Crack3rZ

    Nothing is impossible. Lets not be bounded by the facts because this limits us to our greater potential.

    Enjoyed this article! great post!

  • http://freetraffictip.com Tinu

    Think we already have a Hive Mind to an extent. So much more frequent that I think of an invention only to find someone else created it. On some level, even Jung thought we shared a collective consciousness. We just can’t measure it yet…

  • http://twitter.com/RalfLippold Ralf Lippold

    The Blue Sky is the boundary of human imagination – everything is possible that can be imagined! 

  • http://www.jessicamullen.com jessicamullen

    I wrote this in reply as an article on my site:

    The impossible is happening more often. Because of the Internet and evolution of human consciousness, our connected nature is creating an awareness of the “energy behind everything” (also known as god, or source energy, or hive mind, or MetaMan, or the flow of well being). As humans, we are collectively relearning a dormant sense: the flow sense.

    The flow sense is being able to perceive the energy behind everything (that knows everything), and listen to it’s infinite intelligence. It’s so beautiful to be human because not only do we have an easy guidance system (emotions) directing us to the flow, but we also have an individual mind to create in flow. Creating in flow is to have a desire and feel the satisfaction of having it come to you, because the force that knows everything arranged reality in just the right way for you to get what you want.

    To be a cooperative component when creating (thinking) with the hive mind, don’t resist the flow with questions of how your desires are manifesting. Reality is complex and it can take some time to get the things you want. Just let each desire go as you have it and find a way to feel good without it.

    The things you want are either going to happen or not, and there’s nothing you can DO about it (you can’t control all the moving parts that are needed to get your big dreams to you), aside from by offering as little resistance as possible. You offer cooperation instead when you think positive thoughts (your mind is creating this experience after all! it’s the engine!) that are full of knowing and trust in the power of source energy (i.e., god or Christ or flow). You offer cooperation when you meditate and quiet your mind so you can hear what infinite intelligence is guiding you to. You will hear it by attracting a thought that contains your solution, or a step on the way.

    • http://www.facebook.com/john.kline.kurtz John Kline Kurtz

      …also known as “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now works in the children of disobedience”. This is a phrase from the English translation of part of Ephesians 2:2. Interestingly, the Greek word for work here is ‘energeo’ or in English ‘energy’. That Greek word is also used in several places to describe God’s working. So we might say that there are two “forces” or powers that energize. We should recognize the difference between the two, though post-modern New-Age lingo might not. The question for anyone is… Which power are you obedient to?

  • John Ware

    I remember growing up that I knew everything, that I was smarter than my parents – as I’m sure many other teenagers before and after felt, as well. That was 40+ years ago and things have changed rapidly since then. I feel that, as I approach retirement, that I have fared pretty well. And, when I look back, I find that many of my successes were because of my willingness to think outside the box, imagine other ways of doing things, and communicating differently. All the while, parrying the slings and arrows of conventional wisdom and what many called “the real world.”

    Having said that, I don’t feel I have any exceptional qualities any more than the next guy or gal, except to think more creatively. And that starts with questioning and exhibiting skepticism. God or no God? Being an entrepreneur (a very dirty word in 1970) vs a corporate monkey? Dad urged the latter, I resisted. Work in-state, or leave for “greener” pastures? I think the constant here is to have the courage to defy, even if you don’t have the answer and don’t know when you will find it.

    I think it’s as cool to think of what can happen to what we can’t possibly know what will happen. And the truism in the article that what we have now is really nothing more than a steppingstone to the future. Twitter won’t exist in its present form in a few years, if it exists at all. Those who can grasp that concept more quickly than others will profit and prosper.

  • Sunyata

    Fascinating, thought-provoking discussions. Enjoyed them. See ‘Colourless Green Ideas Sleep Furiously’ for further vectors.

  • Weebad1

    Metaconsciousness. 

  • M. E. Hubbard

    It’s called the “Collective Consciousness”.  “Emile Durkheim used the term in his books “The Division of Labor in Society” (1893), “Rules of the Sociological Method” (1895), Suicide (1897), and “the Elementary Forms of Religious Life” (1912).” – according to Wikipedia.

  • Greg

    There is a name for what you’re talking about. It’s called the Internet Age. And like any “Age” in history, some invention came along that fundamentally altered what was possible.

    When the first steam engines were being built, most people thought the world would be the same as it was before, only steam powered versions of everything. We’d ride in horseless carriages instead of regular carriages.

    But what many didn’t forsee was the impact mechanization would have on the individual economics. The original acre was how much land an ox could plow in one day, which severely limited the size of land that one farmer could manage on his own. A tractor didn’t just mean that a farmer’s labor was easier, but that he could manage a significantly larger chunk of land. Fewer people were needed to farm, more people could do non-farm-related work.

    It turned out that the steam engine, and the related progress it brought, became known as the Industrial Age because it altered nations like America from an Agrarian society made up mostly of farmers to an industrial society.

    It’s called the internet age because information is easy to store, reproduce, and transmit.  The computational power needed to create wikipedia is relatively small. All you need is a text editor. A hardcopy encyclopedia just needs some manual typewriters, paper, razor, and glue.

    The difference is that to “communicate” an encyclopedia made out of paper costs a lot of money up front, but to communicate an electronic encyclopedia over the internet is basically free, or at least a sunk cost for most people, so the bar to entry into any sort of information exercise became zero. Anyone could do it. And anyone did.

    Take a theoretical information project that requires a million man hours. If communication is expensive, it will probably make sense to centralize the people working on it so that the amount of communication is relatively small. Just have everyone work in the same office building. So you have a hundred people work on the million man hour project, which means each one has to put in 10000 hours.

    If communication is very nearly free, then you can distribute the project to the poitn that you have one million people working on it, and each one only has to contribute one minute’s worth of work. That is wikipedia in a nutshell.

    We are in the internet age. Computers are common and internet connections are fast and relatively cheap. And what the internet age did was lower the bar to entry for information projects to be very small indeed.

    That you were unable to predict it is why it is an “Age”. Its a fundamental change in individual economics that it alters society fundamentally.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=15616116 Robin Hanson

    I fear you are not clear on what this word “impossible” means.

    • Kevin_Kelly

      I use the term the way real people use it everyday and not the way a logician would use it. In this form it means “what we could not imagine.”

  • Yuri van Geest

    Strongly agree Kevin! Good post.

    My gut feeling is that after software, video, text we will migrate towards social organisations to produce physical and biological products. Synthetic biology on a global social scale? 3D printing and nanofactories on a global social scale? What about robots and AI on a global social scale?

    Another angle I have is that we witness more real-time synchronous global social revolutions – politically, environmentally, social-culturally (real time global meditation and consciousness event as well as real time global dance events and festivals for example) and economically. Smart mobbing in real time. We have seen many examples already in the last 12 months in this respect across the globe. This will intensify driven by transparency, social media and our need to purify the global system of outdated beliefs and structures. This all strongly relates to the grand challenges we face as poverty, health, crime, climate change. 

    Emergence and self organisation are indeed the key themes going forward.

  • bharata wingham

    I believe Bucky Fuller had an expression, “Only the Impossible Happens.”