Figuring Out Hyper Connectivity

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The NY Times' Thomas Friedman's August 14 column looks at the parallel upheavals of the London riots, Arab spring, tea party anger, and young people mobilizing around the world against government austerity measures. He asks:

"Why now? It starts with the fact that globalization and the information technology revolution have gone to a whole new level. Thanks to cloud computing, robotics, 3G wireless connectivity, Skype, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Twitter, the iPad, and cheap Internet-enabled smartphones, the world has gone from connected to hyper-connected.This is the single most important trend in the world today."

Let's repeat that last bit: Hyper connectivity is the single most important trend in today's world. That's quite a statement. But one that is arguably justifiable when you look at the innumerable ways in which communications technologies are changing so many facets of life, and opening new possibiliities across the social and business spectrum.

For a company like ours that deeply inhabits the connected world this is obviously validation of the importance of the technologies we work with day to day. But it's also a reminder that these technologies can be seen as both beneficial or harmful, empowering or dangerous, depending on one's circumstances.

For example, in February, Libya shut down Internet access to the country in an attempt to prevent protesters organizing. Civil rights groups complained about suppression of free speech. The same rights groups comlained last week when my local subway (BART) in San Francisco shut down cellphone access in its stations to pre-emptively prevent protesters organizing after BART police shot a homeless man. Obviously there's a big difference in scale between these events, but it shows how central communications technologies have become to social movements of all types, and how the responses of worried authorities can be very similar even in very different contexts.

The flash mobs that rioted in London (where I grew up) last week were coordinated - so to speak - by text messages, Facebook and Twitter. The BlackBerry Messenger service appears to have played a key role because of its higher level of encryption and privacy (which is why several countries have tried to get RIM to provide them back doors so they can read the messages). There has been much outcry after the London riots, yet it was the same technologies that helped fuel Tahrir Square and the overthrow of dictator Hosni Mubarak, who is currently in a cage in an Egyptian courtroom on trial for crimes against humanity.

But then after the London riots, the same connecting technologies started to be used to catch the rioters. The police created a Flickr page with photos from the security cameras that blanket the city (picture above), and residents spontaneously organized clean-up efforts on Twitter with the tag #riotcleanup.

Allowing people and cultures to connect together more easily is a good thing to do. Shared communication is how progress is made (see recent events in Washington DC for what happens when communication stops and common ground gets lost). As Friedman says, the trends being fueled by communications technologies are not going away, and hyper-connectivity is going to continue to be a reality that changes how we live in numerous other ways, large and small. But we are in a period of still figuring out what all these changes mean, and what the ground rules are for how we - as individuals, societies, companies, and governments - now behave with the new capabilities these technologies give us.

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