I gave the closing talk at FiberFete on Thursday. FiberFete was a celebration of the complete fiber-ing of Lafayette, Louisiana — an impressive story of a city struggling to overcome entrenched interests with a vision of how low-cost bandwidth can bring about major benefits in education, medical care, and the economy. The Fete was organized by Geoff Daily and David Isenberg as a celebration, and as a way to stimulate interest and enthusiasm in what a fully connected city can do. The day was impressive and even moving as we heard from the CIOs of San Francisco and Seattle, technologists, visionaries, and an awesome group of Lafayette teachers and students.
David wanted me to talk about what we could do if we had ubiquitous, high speed, open, symmetric (i.e., roughly the same speed for uploading and downloading) connectivity. Since I don’t know what we could do, I tried to beg off, but David insisted. So, here’s a summary of what I said in my twenty minutes.
The important thing about ubiquity is not the percentage of people connected, but the ubiquity of the assumption of ubiquity. E.g., we assume everyone has access to a phone, even though “only” 95.7% of American households have one (including cell phones). Nevertheless, the assumption creates a market for innovation.
The core of that assumption is an assumption of abundance…an abundance of information, links, people, etc. Our brains have difficulty comprehending the abundance we now have. There are so many people on line that the work of 1% can create something that boggles the mind of the other 99%. As more people come on line, that rule of 1% will become a rule of 0.01% and then 0.001%. The curve of amazement is going straight up.
The abundance means we will fill up every space we can think of. We are creating plenums (plena?) of sociality, knowledge and ideas, and things (via online sensors). These plenums fill up our social, intellectual and creative spaces. The only thing I can compare them to in terms of what they allow is language itself.
What do they allow? Whatever we will invent. And the range of what we can invent within these plenums is enormous, at least so long as the Net isn’t for anything in particular. As soon as someone decides for us what the Net is “really” for, the range of what we can do with it becomes narrowed. That’s why we need the Net to stay open and undecided.
These abundances are not merely quantitative. They change the nature of what they provide. And they refuse to stay within their own bounds. For example, we go online to get information about a product, probably through a mobile device. There we find customer conversations. These voices are not confined to giving us product reviews. We are also ubiquitously connected to pragmatic advice, to new businesses and institutions that compete with or make use of the item we’re engaged with, to governmental and legal information. If people are unhappy with the product, they may use their online meeting spot as a way to organize an activist movement.
In other words, Clay Shirky is right: The Net makes it ridiculously easy to form groups. In fact, when your information medium, communication medium, and social medium are all precisely the same, its ubiquity will make it hard not to form groups. For example, if your child has a bad cough, of course you’ll go online. Of course you’ll find other parents talking about their kids. Your information search has become a communicative enterprise. Because you’re now talking with other people who share an interest, your communication is likely to spawn a social connection. These plenums just won’t stay apart.
Furthermore, many of these networked groups will be hyperlocal, especially within localities where connectivity is ubiquitous. As we get more of these locations, hyperlocal networks will connect with other hyperlocal networks, creating superlocal networks (although I have no idea what I mean by that term).
These plenums will affect all of our institutions because they remove obstacles to our being more fully human.