Technology is morphing previously rigid power relationships all around the world. And as Peter Cochrane explains, that’s no bad thing… Solutions to many complex problems - including those that will probably always defy conventional mathematics - have emerged from the most unlikely combination of artificial life and intelligence through emergent behaviour. What really appeals to me is the way in which very simple organisms and systems are able to realise highly effective outcomes to complex problems. Ant colonies and wasp nests are good examples of simple systems exhibiting complex behaviour. With minimal communication, limited rule sets, simple software, minimal computational power and rudimentary sensory capability, these creatures create amazing outcomes. Unexpectedly, bio-based technologies have had an impact on telecoms networks, control and logistics systems, organisational science and crowd behaviour studies in a spectacular manner. Standing on the shoulders of Mother Nature and picking her brains has given us an incredible short cut to success and solutions. In many respects it has also given us a precursor to some of the recently emerging behaviour in our own society. The years 2000 and 2001 saw a number of spectacularly well-organised events across Europe that exhibited simple organic behaviour within human networks, epitomising the advantage of evolution over hierarchy. A principle cause was rapidly raising petroleum prices through excessive taxation. First was a spontaneous revolt in France with the blocking of roads and ports by farmers and truck and cab drivers. This was not unionised. There was no identifiable central organisation. It was a distributed reaction using mobile phones and email to great effect. Soon other European nations joined the rebellion. Governments didn�t see it coming. Their public radar system was ineffective and their shields were down. By the time heads of state appeared on TV to appeal for calm the protesters were in distributed control and far better informed and organised than government. As soon as a government spokesman made accusations of intimidation and violence to bolster the position of the police and military, a TV reporter would be on screen with denial interviews involving the people on the ground. The very people who were supposedly being defended and protected by government were publicly rejecting that proposition as unnecessary as the claimed intimidation had never occurred. What a coup. Government 0 – Rebellion 1. Just picture it – information arrives at some regional government office to be filtered and distorted as it passes from one layer to another. Advisors are consulted and a committee formed to decide the best course of action. Strategists and spin-doctors apply their wisdom. The appropriate politician gives it a tweak. All is set for the head of state to present to the electorate. In the meantime the protesters have disseminated the latest developments across the country and moved on to the next phase. Their silent and invisible electronic network was operating in a distributed mode thousands of times faster than that of the paper and word-of-mouth world of the government. The final curtain was superbly timed. At the point where a country was close to collapse and a state of emergency was being declared, as the military were about to remove the blockages because food and energy supplies were obviously threatened, the protesters at the blockades spontaneously disappeared and even more public support was gained. In such a situation, zero hierarchy and speed of communication are clear winners. This was guerrilla warfare without casualties other than the loss of face by government. In such a game it is speed and direction of decision that win the day against depth of thought and old thinking. A parallel situation preceded the fuel rebellion with the very tragic loss of the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk on 12 August 2001. This turned out to be an awful example of not understanding by a state. Here was an old military and party machine accustomed to controlling the media and flow of information for decades. Delays, untruths, attempts at a cover-up, accusations of interference from outside forces, a possible collision with another vessel and the denial of clearly registered explosions were all used to hide the truth. Offers of help from other nations were rejected as unnecessary. Why? To save face? To avert blame? The communications channels of the planet were ahead of the military and political machine by days. The bits just outpaced the atoms and the distributed intelligence of the internet went far beyond the government players. Public anger quickly mounted and political credibility was lost at a rapidly accelerating rate. Reports from the outside world of an explosion at 11:29 of 1.5 on the Richter scale (corresponding to 100kg of high explosives), followed by another at 11.31 of magnitude 3.5, immediately negated all the official versions of the incident. It is hard to say how many similar situations have occurred in the past but no doubt a lot has gone unreported or misrepresented. But it will be increasingly difficult for governments to do so in the future as technology opens more communication channels and informational freedom. The old control freak managers and regimes may have to retire before we see a completely new approach but I suspect that day may be brought ever closer if they are unable to respond to the changes being enacted by societies through technology. If you are going to tell lies and/or deal in half-truths you have to be brilliant – you need such an incredible memory. Typed on my Apple G4 laptop after a boat trip round San Diego harbour and the US naval base. Despatched to silicon.com weeks later from the other side of the planet in Singapore via my hotel room LAN. What do you think? You can contact Peter by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Peter Cochrane is a co-founder of ConceptLabs CA, where he acts as a mentor, advisor, consultant and business angel to a wide range of companies. He is the former CTO and Head of Research at BT, as part of a career at the telco spanning 38 years. He holds a number of prominent posts as a technologist, entrepreneur, writer and humanist, and is the UK’s first Professor for the Public Understanding of Science and Technology. For more about Peter, see: www.cochrane.org.uk. For all Peter’s columns for silicon.com, see: www.silicon.com/petercochrane.
Peter Cochrane’s Uncommon Sense: The invisible revolution
March 5, 2003, 1:44 AM PST
Takeaway: Distributed Us versus centralised Them. And the winner is…
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Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.
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