The Future of Networks … in 1994

by rthieme on April 4, 1994

The Future of Networks: the Future of the World

published in LAN Magazine (Australia) (Spring, 1994)

I am not a futurist, but I do take solace in knowing that most futurists aren’t either. Futurists seldom describe the future; they describe the present. Since ninety-five per cent of us haven’t arrived at the present yet, it sounds like the future.

How we talk about the future has itself been changed by the revolution in information systems.

We used to think of our future plans as railroad tracks in a straight line headed for the horizon. Something might derail the train, but tracks were still straight. Now the idea of connecting dots toward a single future is laughable. Exponential change — everything everywhere changing at the same time — has changed how we think about change.

It is not merely the speed of the flow of information that makes straight-line planning untenable. It is how we construct ourselves — our essential selves — as we interact with networked computers.

How we define and think about ourselves, how we frame our possibilities for acting in the world, is a function of the structure of the information systems with which we interact. We internalize that structure as a metaphor for ourselves. The shape of our networks is the shape of our images of our psyches. Our symbiotic relationship with networked computers transforms not only how we think and feel but who we ARE.

One definition of a self is that it is a coherent system for assimilating, organizing, and acting on information. That system is engaged with structures external to itself. When the form of those external structures is altered, the shape of the information that is ourselves is altered as well.

To talk about the future of networking, then, really is to talk about the future of humanity. Everything — everything from our self-conception to our relationship with God — is going through the looking-glass of transformation.

Network professionals are not engaged in some arcane or incidental pursuit. Network professionals — from those who build LANs and WANs to the architects of the Internet — are participating in the recreation of what it means to be a human being on the face of the earth.

I will explore in a tentative way the once and future impact of the Net on human beings and our organizations (using “the Net” and “networked computers” to mean everything from PCs cabled together in an office to the global Internet).

Like a good futurist, I will really be gazing into the crystal ball of the present, remembering Hannibal Lecter’s advice in “Silence of the Lambs;” “First principles, Clarice. Read Marcus Aurelius. Of each particular thing, ask what is it in itself. What is it’s nature?”

What is the Net — right here, right now? What is it in itself? What is its nature?

My life changed when my family unpacked an Apple II+ over a decade ago. We squealed with delight at the little stick man dancing to the music on our green screen.

The organizations and institutions of which I have been a part have also changed. The contrast between all of us then and all of us now is like the terminator on the moon, enabling us to see mountains and craters in bold relief where the darkness meets the light.

One thing we did with that Apple was play games. When a new Infocom game was published, it was a major event. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was my favorite.

As we made our way past babel fish and Vogon poetry readings, I discovered that what happened to me playing that game was not what happened when I read a book. Information in the game was organized differently, and as a result, after playing the game, I was organized differently. I experienced myself as a different set of possibilities for action in the world.

For example, the maze of branching possibilities altered my view of the future. The illusion of an endless set of options was a maze that became a metaphor for myself and my experience. The power of recursion became a metaphor for my own growth. I imagined myself in terms of fractals, not the straighter line of books. My life looked like a spiral at each successive level of which my psyche –self-similar but more complex — was recognizable.

In those days I worked as an Episcopal priest. I saw in a flash that the organized life of religious institutions as we had known it — as it had been generated by the world of the printing press — was over. The unimaginable unnameable systems of spirituality and religious thought to emerge in the future would include and transcend everything that came before — but that would be seen, as always, only in retrospect. At the time — for individuals as for institutions and civilizations — it feels like things are coming apart.

Every genuine transformation requires that we traverse a zone of annihilation in which everything we thought ourselves to be is called into question. Then “we” are reorganized at a higher level of the spiral and see that we are still ourselves — only different.

All that from a text adventure on a floppy disc? Yes, because the “space” in which we played inside that computer game was finite but unbounded, as Einstein described the universe. That game was like a holographic slice of the networked world i which we have come to live.

The natural language parser that enabled us to interact with the game was a user-friendly interface, enabling us to attach oursleves to a node of the program. We became part of the operation of the program. The system of information that was us was altered by its interaction with the program.

The experience of interacting with networked computers teaches us to think of ourselves as in ways that are framed by the possibilities disclosed by those computers. Users at monitors are like bees on flowers, pollinating the biomass with memes — images or symbols of experience and knowledge.

Here’s how it works.

Prior to a retreat for the management of a bank, I interviewed key leaders. The retreat was intended to initiate a process of corporate reorganization.

Each person with whom I spoke was intelligent and experienced. Yet each one spoke of “the bank” as an obstacle frustrating their best intentions. When they were off-site, alone together in a conference room, I asked: “Where’s the bank?

The bank that so dismayed them was in their heads.

We internalize the structures of our organizations in ways that define our possibilities for action. The bank was hierarchical. The shared map of the landscape was an organization chart built of rectangles connected by straight lines. That chart described a win/lose game. Power is exercised in such a system by knocking someone else out of the box you wanted. The organizaiton is highly competitive because power is exercised by dominating and controlling.

The first time I connected to the Internet, I discovered myself present in a web or network. As I moved from web site to web site, I remained at the center. No matter where I went in the web, I remained at the center, But everyone else weas also at the center. Everyone was at the center and no one was displaced.

My experience of possibilies changed because power is exercised differently in a web or network than in a hierarchy. It is exercised by contributing and participating.

Ironically, winning a battle gnerates as much insecurity as losing in a win/lose structure because the structure itself is in a condition of permanant artificial scarcity. Participating in a web of relationships, on the other hand, and experiencing our positive impact through frequent feedback and mutuality, generates security for everyone.

The anxiety and fear inevitably caused by the dislocation of jobs and roles through the computer revolution can be transformed by the feedback and mutuality that is sumultaneously created by working together in networks.

The human dimension of re-engineering and total quality management asks new behaviors of managers and leaders. Empowerment is more than indifference or neutrality. Real empowerment happens when people are willing to adapt to the inevitable organizaitonal changes caused by computer networks.

Managers are asked to learn how to be coaches for good reason. More rigid hierarchical structures were appropriate during times of relative stability and to the way information was managed and disseminated prior to computer networking.

The distribution of information throughout the system, putting it into the hands of the people who need it and use it, is in itself empowering. Those who administer such systems inevitably find the structures and uses of authority redefined.

Hierarchical structures are not over, however. Hierarchy persists because it is a way of arranging roles so that energy is not sacrificed to the continuous negotiation demanded by role confusion.

Communities of work and social life will continue to grow and expand laterally like petals of a flower. Networks inevitably generate lateral communities like Usenet groups. But paradoxically, global organizations — centralized and hierarchical — will be replicated at the same time. Fractals are self-similar at all scales. The complexity of the global economy will increase, but its shape — vertical as well as horizontal — will persist.

Our conversation about the future — which is how we define our possibilities — has itself changed. This is best illustrated by the evolution of “scenario planning.”

According to Peter Schwarz and the Global Business Network, scenario planning evolved when Shell Oil was shocked by the oil crists of 1973 into realizing they needed to do a better job of anticipating the future. Scenario planning was one result.

Scenario planning is a way of recognizing that exponential change makes the world unthinkably complex and difficult to predict. Organizations and individuals alike are always at a crossroads from which a seemingly infinite number of branching futures emanate.

Scenario planning uses input from knowledgeable men and women in diverse fields to identify possibilities. These possibilities are gathered into scenarios and given names. Criteria are identified for evaluating which scenario(s) are evolving. Frequent comparison of what emerges with models of the future enable planners to revise their planing.

I recently evaluated Internet marketing possibilities for a real estate developer. As I began to write a final report, a software marketing project surfaced that was urgent. Thew application had to claim sufficient “mindshare” within two months or the company might be gone.

I devoted two months to that project, then turned back to the report. In the intervening two months, the relationship of online providers to the Internet had changed so much that the report was entirely different.

The future has not changed but the way we construct the future as a set of possibilities for action has been changed and now resembles the structure of the information systems that process information about the future.

Is there such a thing as “the future?” Clearly the cognitive necessity of our culture to anticipate and plan mandates something called “the future.” The content of theat structure is profoundly affected if not determined by computers. The content IS the conformation of data to the form of computer programs evolving over the Net.

Networked computers are transforming what it means to be a human being because human beings define themselves as possibilities for action in the world oriented toward an ultimate purpose or a future horizon. That horizon motivates us and suffuses the journey with the meaning of that ultimate purpose, even though the purpose is inevitably transformed in the process of realization.

Inasmuch as education is a process by which we learn to assimilate, organize, and use information, it is not surprising that the shape of education is bending in response to the same pull of gravity..

The education I received in the United States in the 50s and 60s was not experienced as a choice. It’s what education was.

Similarly, I assumed that adolescence was a developmental stage that everyone had experienced. I didn’t know that adolescence was a modern invention, that the printing press by inventing the collection of benches on which to sit and read called school invented adolescence as the time to do it.

Learning had been accomplished through apprenticeship. Young people worked beside adults, learning by doing. Textbooks postponed adulthood and mandated a period of time for learning the art of manipulating and internalizing typographic symbols.

The structures of education today are out of synch with the structures of adulthood. Busineses discover that they need to educate workers — both to bring them up to speed, then to keep them there.

More education takes place today in conference rooms, hotel meeting rooms, and via remote telepresence and onsite computer-assisted learning than in classrooms. Continuous learning is an unquestioned assumption of life today

But the content of the learning is, again, directly related to the impact of compuiter networks..

A businesse complained to me that the graduates of a local school were well educated in every way but one: they did not know how to work cooperatively.

What they meant by cooperative learning — sharing resources and subordinating their goals to the group — we used to call “cheating.”

I was taught to work “independently.” Information was delivered at the convenience of the curriculum and the teacher. The teacher in turn controlled the learning environment.

It is no surprise that teachers taught to be authorities in a command-and-control system have difficulty modelling and teaching cooperative learning.

Computer assisted learning delivers information to the student when they are teachable — when they make a mistake. Teachers must know how to coach” in that environment in the same way that managers have to learn how to coach.

The best teachers are enthusiastic about “getting computers into the schools,” but that too is thinking according to the old paradigm. Networked computers do not need to be in one place, any more than a corporation requires all of its works to come to one location. Our lives take place at our point of presence to the network.

No wonder drop-out rates are rising in the States.Those quick enough to see what they need often pursue knowledge through a growing “black market” in education. The virtual marketplace for the exchange of “educational goods” is the global network.

Businesses are becoming centers of education, not because they want to, but because they must. McDonald’s teaches politeness and civility because traditional structures no longer do the job adequately. “Work-to-school” programs expand as apprenticeship is re-engineered for the 21st century.

Networked computers are physical symbol-manipulating machines in symbiotic relationship with people who are also physical symbol-manipulating machines. Using Marvin Minsky’s definition of thinking in “The Society of Mind.” the Network can be said to be thinking.

“If you understand something in only one way,” he wrote, “then you do not really understand it at all. The secret of what anything means to us depends on how we have connected it to all the other things we know. If you have several different representations, when one approach fails you can try another.

Well-connected representations let you turn ideas around in your mind until you find one that works. That is what we mean by thinking!”

Individuals who think that way — who think in the context of networks — will frame possibilities differently than people who see things in only one way. Those who stay stuck in a single way of representing themselves and the world will be isolated and fearful. That very isolation makes the mutuality of networks — the kind of truth-seeking that could set them free — beyond their grasp. Because the Network itself generates the mutuality which makes ambiguity and complexity managable, those who are connected will rise as a spiral rises, while unfortunately those who not connected will sink in a downward spiral of self-defeating behaviors. This will be as true economically as it is psychologically and spiritually.

The psychologist Fritz Perls observed that excitement is anxiety plus oxygen. The challenge of the wired world is to transform our initial anxiety in the face of radical change into excitement, energized rather than paralyzed.

One task of our public institutions is to assist people in learning how to morph from anxiety to excitement, from being frozen to being mobile.

Those who have grown to love and live in networks ought not to lose sight of the sources of anxiety and fear. A generation in being born which will live in a worldwide panoticon.

A panopticon is a prison invented by Jeremy Benthem in the 19th century. It consisted of cells with glass doors arranged in a ring. Prisoners can see neither one another nor the guard but the guard can see them — all of the time.

When we know we can always be observed, our behavior changes. We censor ourselves. We give lip service to consensus reality but live private lives in hiding.

The networked world of electronic information is a panopticon, but no Orwellian Big Brother is building it. We’re building it ourselves.

We’re like the inhabitants of New York described in the film, “My Dinner With Andre:” “It’s a new model for the concentration camp, the camp has been built by the inmates themselves, and the inmates are the guards, and they have this pride in this thing they’ve built–they’ve built their own prison–and so they’re both guards and prisoners. They no longer have the capacity to leave the prison they’ve made or even to see it as a prison.”

Individual and organizational privacy — invading it and protecting it — is big business and will get bigger. “Privacy brokers” who know how to encrypt, decipher, capture, or secure communications and proprietary information are a necessity in the networked world.

The privacy taken for granted in the past, when all it took was a walk outside to have a conversation behind a tree, is gone forever.

Information or data by itself is neutral. The power of information that is linked and accessible in networks is magnified by many orders of magnitude.

Mediating structures that discern meaningful patterns and communicate those patterns will evolve into nested “steps” between the sea of inchoate data and the patterns that make sense to us. Sometimes those structures will be programs such as “data mining” applications. Applets, distributed objects, and software components communicate transparently among themselves. Smart agents, avatars, and bots will ride the networks, loking for what we want.

Sometimes the mediators will be human.

The transformation of spirituality and religious organizations will mean new ways of framing ourselves in relationship to one another and to our gods that we cannot yet name or imagine. The moral and ethical dilemmas we will face, however, will be subsets of those we face now.

Everything good and evil in human nature will find new forms of expression in a networked world of simulations and digital facsimiles. What we see when we look into the Net, however, is always ourselves.

The Net is a mirror of our hive mind, feeding back to us symbols of our new selves, reflexive knowledge about our journey into ourselves.

Ultimately, technology is not about technology. It’s about the intention or purpose, the intelligence and sensibility of the human being behind the technology.

The Net is the backbone of a new nervous system. It is necessary to support the infrastructure of a croweded planet. It will be necessary as we move in earnest into trans-planetary space. We must trust the organic growth of that system and its self-correcting evolutionary process to deliver safeguards as well as threats for our viability as a species.

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