The Future of Networks: the Future of the World

by rthieme on February 5, 1995

starniteBy Richard Thieme

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

To talk about the future of networks is fraught with peril because our conversation about the future has itself been changed by the revolution in information systems.

We used to think of the future as railroad tracks headed toward the horizon in a straight line. Something might derail the train, but the tracks would remain straight. Now the idea of a straight line 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 thinking untenable but how we construct the future as a result of interacting with networked computers. How we construct ourselves has changed as well.

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 our selves, our psyches. Our symbiotic relationship with networked computers transforms not only how we think and feel but who we in fact ARE.

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 a peripheral activity. Network professionals — from those who build LANs and WANs to the architects of the Internet — are participating in the re-creation of what it means to be a human being.

I want to explore the impact of the Net on individuals and organizations (meaning by “the Net” everything from a few PCs in an office to the Internet). Like a good futurist, I will talk about the future by gazing into the crystal ball of the present.

Hannibal Lecter, in “Silence of the Lambs,” said to Clarice, the young FBI agent, “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 chortled with delight at the little stick man dancing to music on our green screen.

The organizations and institutions of which I have been a part have also changed since then. 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 poets, I discovered that what happened to me when I played 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.

The maze of branching possibilities altered my view of the future. The illusion of an endless set of options became a metaphor for myself and my experience. The power of recursion became a metaphor for my growth. I imagined myself in terms of fractals, not the straighter line of text. My life began to look like a rising spiral.

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. While it might take years, or decades, or even centuries for the process to work itself out, something new would emerge from the cracked egg.

The systems of spirituality and religion that are emerging will include and transcend everything that came before — but that will only be seen, as always, in retrospect.

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.

Did all that really come from playing a text adventure? It did indeed because the “space” in which I played that game required that I conform to its parameters; that shape became a metaphor for the shape of my “self.”

The structure of the game was like a slice of a hologram. That slice contained the shape of the networked world in which we live in its entirety.

When we interact with networked computers, we think of ourselves in new ways. The possibilities disclosed by computers change our understanding of history, the arts, the sciences — everything.

Here’s an example of how that 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, experienced, dedicated. Yet each spoke of “the bank” as an obstacle that frustrated their best intentions. When they were off-site, alone together in a conference room, I asked: “Where’s the bank?

The bank that restrained 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 executives shared a map of the landscape, an organizational 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 a box. 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, no matter where I went, I remained at the center, but everyone else was also at the center. Everyone was at the center and no one was displaced.

My sense of possibilities changed as I realized that power is exercised differently in a web or network than in a hierarchy. It is exercised by contributing and participating.

Participating in a network discloses a different way of participating in life.

When organizations are networked, new behaviors are required of managers. The buzzword describing the life inside the new structure is empowerment, but empowerment is more than a buzzword. Real empowerment happens when people adapt successfully to the organizational changes caused by computer networks.

Rigid hierarchical structures were appropriate during times of relative stability. They provided for the management and distribution of information in a way that worked.

The redistribution of information throughout the system, putting it into the hands of people who need it, transforms the roles of employees and supervisors. Those who administer such systems inevitably find the uses of authority redefined. Managers are asked to morph into coaches. They still have authority, but it must be used differently to assist empowered employees.

Yet hierarchy has plenty of lives, making organizational life today paradoxical. Lateral communities like Usenet groups or empowered work-teams will continue to grow and flatten the structure, but hierarchy will also replicate itself at a higher level of organization. Hierarchy persists because it defines roles in a way that conserves energy. The constant negotiation necessary when there is role confusion dissipates energy. That’s why exclusively “virtual corporations” with little vertical structure will find it difficult to remain stable in the long run.

Viable organizations live in the creative tension between horizontal and vertical structures. Centralized, hierarchical structures — the vertical trunks of trees — will grow taller, while lateral branching communities grow wider.

Fractals, in short, are self-similar at all scales.

That our conversation about the future — and our conversation about the future defines our possibilities in life — has itself changed is illustrated by “scenario planning.”

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

Scenario planning is a way of recognizing that exponential change makes the world unthinkably complex and the future impossible to predict. Input is gathered from knowledgeable people in diverse fields to imagine possible futures; these scenarios are given names and the social, economic, or political events that would have to be true for them to happen are identified. Frequent comparison of the models with what subsequently happens enables organizations to adapt and respond appropriately.

It is not the future that has changed but the way we construct the future as a set of possibilities. That construction now resembles the structure of the information systems with which we interact. Scenario planning is a way of simulating a computer program.

The computer program — a metaphor for the Network — is the model. Life is the simulation.

What will this sea-change mean for education? Inasmuch as education is a process by which we learn to assimilate, organize, and use information, it is no surprise that the shape of education is also bending.

I was taught as I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s that the content of adolescence was learning. I didn’t know that adolescence was a modern invention, that the printing press had invented school as a collection of benches on which to sit and read and adolescence as the time to do it.

Learning had previously been accomplished through apprenticeship. Young people worked beside adults, learning by doing. The village was their teacher. The invention of text postponed adulthood because time was required to master the art of symbol manipulation.

The structures of education today are out of synch with the structures of adulthood. Because businesses need to bring employees up to speed, then keep them there, more and more education takes place today in conference rooms, seminars and workshops, and via remote telepresence and onsite computer-assisted learning than in classrooms. Continuous learning is now an unquestioned assumption of life.

But the content of that learning as well as its form is changing — again, due to the impact of computer networks.

A business executive 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 he meant by cooperative learning — sharing resources and subordinating goals to the group process — 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 controlled the learning environment.

Cooperative learning and teamwork are labels for the needs of a workplace or learning environment created by distributed computing. Power is exercised differently in a web or network. Teachers taught to be dominant in command-and-control systems cannot model or teach cooperative learning until they know how to do it themselves, then know that they know it so they can teach it.

Computer assisted learning delivers information to students when they are teachable. Teachers must learn to coach students when the students need it, not when teachers choose, just as managers have to learn how to coach workers empowered by networks.

The best teachers are often enthusiastic about “getting computers into the schools,” but alas, that thinking too is mired in the old paradigm. Networked computers do not need to be in the schools. They need to be available to us where we are.

Those quick enough to see what they need pursue knowledge through a growing “black market” in education. The global network is a virtual marketplace for the exchange of educational goods and services.

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 think.

“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!”

The network thinks and expresses its ideas through a multiplicity of representations. When one of us expresses one of those representations, we say, “I have an idea!” But the idea is never ours alone.

Similarly the notion of “individual authorship” is under assault because the network integrates the contributions of everyone who works on a literary or artistic project. Intellectual property rights, while not a thing of the past, are being reinvented to deal with the reality of shared responsibility.

Individuals 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 cooperative truth-seeking that would set them free — beyond their grasp. Because the Network itself generates the mutuality which makes ambiguity and complexity manageable, those who are well-connected will thrive, while those who are isolated will stay stuck in the downward spiral of self-defeating behaviors.

Economically as well as spiritually, conversion — the reversal of the downward spiral — is society’s responsibility. One task of our public institutions is to assist people in learning how to morph from anxiety to excitement, from paralysis in the face of change to flexibility.

One of the most profound changes occasioned by networks is the loss of privacy. We are even losing the possibility of getting lost. Because we are always observable, we can always be located. How will it change us to know that the light is always on?

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.

People who know they can be observed behave differently. We censor ourselves. We give lip service to consensus reality but live private lives in hiding.

The networked world 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.

We will invent intermediate structures to protect ourselves from the prying eyes of the Net. We will need them to make sense of the vast sea of data that would otherwise remain inchoate, but they will also enable us to hide. We will increasingly interact with one another and with the Network through intelligent agents.

Applets, distributed objects, and software components communicate transparently among themselves, antecedents of the agents and avatars that will move through the arteries of the network. Some will act like digger shovels mining mountains of data for nuggets of gold. Some will act like virtual detectives. In their efforts to communicate with one another, do our bidding, and protect themselves at the same time, agents may collude or create cabals or even kill each other off. Some will evolve the skills they need to survive in the virtual world.

Agents are specialized applications that will be invested with our projections. We will personalize them, then believe in them. Microsoft’s “Bob” didn’t work out, but other smiley-faced interfaces will show up. The gods and heroes of Greek mythology were personifications of archetypes or aspects of our own souls. The Net will develop its own mythology and evolve personae to represent us. Invisible messengers, they will traverse the Net like demons and angels.

Some will be as powerful as gods.

To speak of the transformation of spirituality and religious systems in cyberspace is a way to say we are discovering new ways of framing ourselves in relationship to one another and to our gods. Our moral and ethical dilemmas, however, will resemble those we face today. Everything good and evil in human nature will be expressed on the Net. When we look into the Net, we will see ourselves.

The Net is a mirror of our hive mind, feeding back to us symbols of our new selves. Our interaction with the Net is a self-conscious dialectic, a rising spiral of symbiotic interaction. Do we speak our native language or does it speak us? Do we use computers to express ourselves — or do our networked computers use us to express the Net?

The Net is the backbone of a new nervous system, necessary to the infrastructure of a crowded planet. In the next century we will move in earnest into trans-planetary space. The Net is a good place to practice how to live in a universe that is more complex, more diverse, more gregarious than we — or our Networks — can imagine.

1995

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