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Mark Pesce: The Age of Hyperconnectivity

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
26th February 2011


Excerpted from Mark Pesce:

How many people can any given person on Earth reach directly? Before the Urban Revolution that value had a strict upper bound in Dunbar’s Number. This number sets an functional limit on the troupe (tribe) size of Homo Sapiens Sapiens. Human units larger than this fragment and bifurcate along lines of relation and communication. One tribe grows from stability into instability, and fissions into two. In the transition to the city, humanity developed other mechanisms for communication to compensate for our lack of cognitive capacity; the birth of writing proceeds directly from the informational and connective pressure of dense communities.

The city is as much a network as a residence, perhaps even more so. The city is comprised of neighborhoods – recapitulating the tribal within the urban – which, grouped together, form the larger conurbation of the metropolis. Each of these neighborhoods are tightly connected (the older the city, the older the neighborhood, the more likely this is to be true), and each maintains connectivity with near neighborhoods and the greater urban whole. Where one might have direct and immediate connectivity to a hundred and fifty members of a tribe, one has some degree of mediated connectivity to thousands or tens of thousands within a city. It is possible to get a message to the other side of town, through a chain of intermediaries, the ‘degrees of separation’ explored by Stanley Milgram4.

Until the modern era, human connectivity stopped at the city’s gates. Only a very few powerful individuals or institutions, able to afford their own messengers, could expect to have connectivity beyond the confines of a given urban area. Postal services extended this connectivity within the boundaries of then-emerging nation-states, at a price that made connectivity affordable to the new working classes. The telegraph gave connectivity global reach, and collapsed the time for message transmission from months to minutes. Yet the telegraph was highly centralized; until the widespread adoption of the telephone, about fifty years later, direct and instantaneous person-to-person communication remained impractical.

The landline telephone provided direct, instantaneous, global connectivity, but to a place, not a person. If you are not in range of a landline telephone, you gain no benefit from its connectivity. Even so, the lure of that connectivity was enough that it drew the landline into nearly a billion offices and dwellings throughout the 20th century. The landline telephone colonized all of the Earth’s surface where its infrastructure could be afforded. This created a situation (reflective of so many others) where there were connected ‘haves’ and un-connected ‘have nots’.

The mobile telephone spreads connectivity directly to the person. The mobile creates the phenomenon of direct human addressability. The mobile is an inherently personal device; each mobile and SIM is associated with a single person. With this single innovation, the gap is spanned between tribal and urban organizational forms. Everyone is directly connected, as in the tribe, but in unknowably vast numbers, as in the city.

The last decade has seen an accelerating deployment of direct human addressability. As of June 2011, there are roughly six billion mobile subscribers5. Roughly ten percent of these individuals have more than one subscription, a phenomenon becoming commonplace in the richer corners of the planet. This means that there are roughly 5.4 billion directly addressable individuals on the planet, individuals who can be reached with the correct series of numbers.

The level of direct human addressability of the species in toto can be calculated as the ratio of total number of subscribers versus the total world population: 5,400,000,000 / 6,900,000,000 or 0.7826. As we move deeper into the 21st century, this figure will approach 1.0: all individuals, rich or poor, young or old, post-graduate or illiterate, will be directly connected through the network. This type of connectivity is not simply unprecedented, nor just a unique feature in human history, this is the kind of qualitative change that leads to a fundamental reorganization in human culture. This, the logical culmination in the growth in human connectivity from the aural tribe to the landline telephone, can be termed hyperconnectivity, because it represents the absolute amplification of all the pre-extant characteristics in human communication, extending them to ubiquity and speed-of-light instantaneity.

Every person now can connect directly with well over three-quarters of the human race. We may not choose to do so, but our networks of human connections overlap (as Milgram demonstrated), so we always have the option of jumping through our network of connections, short circuiting the various degrees-of-separation, to make contact. Or we can simply wait as this connectivity, coursing through the networks, brings everyone in the world to us.”

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