The Challenge Network

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The technical capacity to create connections continues to grow exponentially. The collapse of the bubble (and the associated over-valuation and foolish business decisions in some parts of the telecommunications industry) should not distract us from the extraordinary pace at which communications technology continues to expand. Technologies which are waiting in the wings will carry this further and faster than we may imagine. An example is the prospect of inexpensive, broadband broadcast data communications to and from the home. Boxes costing under US$500 which are installed on the roof of a home talk to their peers, and in doing so spontaneously create networks which afford individual and continuous 10 megabaud communications to the home in question. Once the box is purchased and installed, its operation occurs for the price of its electricity use. Inexpensive systems in development that are aimed specifically at the poor world will allow areas - townships, slums - to be given semi-mobile telephone connections without any of the 'last mile' connection costs, and for low variable cost. New interface technologies - such as the so called 'electronic paper' - may well bring inexpensive computing and communications to a much wider group, and do so within the next few years.

This said, connections are about very much more than information technology. A far better way of thinking about the scope (and limitations) of this is that of navigation through complexity, and the accessibility of information to the adept navigator. Agencies can combine factorially, and as the numbers of agents - people, companies, data repositories - increase, so the number of interactions which they can bring about explodes. Indeed, the explosion is so abrupt that it creates a class of issue which are said to be 'incomputable' with any conceivable technology that is designed to tame them.

The real world copes with factorial combinations by what physicists call 'coarse graining'. We find that we can forget much of the complication that is really there by moving our perspective to a more aggregate level: forget the atoms, focus on the tea cup. Te problem with this is, of course, that new things require us to develop new perspectives from which to see these aggregates. Economists had to invent ideas such as national accounts before we could "see" gross national product, and then happily speculate what "GNP growth" would do to airline ticket sales. Before we had such useful abstract entities, we could not talk about whole classes of activity (or else we did so by means of vague terms such as 'prosperity', that meant different things to almost everyone who used them.)

It takes time to find useful ways to talk about new things. Increased potential for making connections innately increases the complexity of events, options and oversight. If we find orderly ways of interacting with the system that is being created, then we increase our potential to make choices. If we fail to achieve this, then our world becomes ragged, unpredictable and seemingly flooded with distracting detail. We run faster, but we are not sure where we are running. Such experiences are common when, for example, IT systems are introduced into companies: a flood of data is not met with an equal surge of understanding and competence.

To find our way about in the new ocean of connectivity, we need maps. Some of these are formal guides, such as internet search engines. Others are more concerned with how societies manage new things - satellite television, foreign insights - with what to trust and what to avoid, with how to ask questions and how to understand the answer. We can only navigate when we have a reliable sense of these tools.

Additionally, we need access to the data which matter. Journalists have been the navigators and map makers of many societies, and their acute sense of the crucial item of information often leads them to data which are otherwise hidden. On many occasions, however, the data stay hidden, and people remain ignorant or at least uncertain. Where we lack information, however, we are disinclined to trust, as the section on institutions has shown. As our navigation skills increase, so we demand access to ever-more sources of validation and, when these are not forthcoming, we become unsettled.

It seems likely that there will continue to be an increase in the number and range of issues which demand new forms of insight. Increased insight needs to be packaged into casually-accessible navigational cues. Insight and the ability to search enables a mass of questions, which in turn create a growing demand for validation. In each of these, delivery will lag behind need, and disquiet can be expected to grow. A more connected set of societies will, therefore, find itself presented with more and more subversion of its core certainties, with floods of uninterpreted data, with partly-baked options and inadequate interpretation, with dissident and dissonant views, with decision-taking processes which are clogged with detail and dissent. The consequences of this have been discussed elsewhere. Those who are made anxious by uncertainty - notably, the authoritarian young - will continue to adhere to ideological certainties, and to act aggressively towards those who threaten their little islands of stability. As with the mariners who make camp on the back of a sleeping whale, however, unhappy surprises lie in store for any but those in the most armoured and change-resistant society.

Connectivity aids the spread of best practice. It breaks down geographical systems of social ordering and replaces these with social and economic systems that revolve around processes and marketplaces. It places immense pressure upon systems of public decision-taking. These will be forced to adopt a multi-tiered approach, handling issues at the 'right' level of coarse-graining. The European Union calls this "subsidiarity", but it is far from clear what it will look like in its mature state, or how it will be policed. What is clear, however, is that formerly sovereign nation states are likely to have to cede authority and identity both upwards, to these trans-national forms of organisation, and downward, to their major cities, to important processes (monetary management, energy supply and the like) and to traditional sources of public identity, such as geographical regions.

The path for public representation is complex, but relatively clear in at least outline. The forces on commerce are equally evident, and the appropriate responses better understood, if not implemented. The issues that face social identity are, however, poignant. Pluralism follows from liberty, wealth and education. There is no 'one nation' today, let alone a generation from now. Solidarity in outlook and interest tends to be formed around fragmentary aspects of a life - professional colleagues, networks formed through offspring - rather than whole-life categories such as class solidarity or neighbourliness, which used to prevail. The educated form bands of similarity, to which marketing and entertainment is directed. The influence of these unifying forces transcend the strictures of geography and even language. The less educated, however, cling to the local and the traditional, not least as the navigational insight to which we have already referred takes, perhaps, a decade longer to be socially assimilated and made accessible than is the case for the educated.

The outlook for the industrial world, therefore, consists of layers of similarity punctuated by pockets of dissent, all of it embedded in extremely complex and subsidiary systems of decision-taking. Successful states will have good navigation tools and will make use of expert insight to achieve valid, adaptive policy. They will succeed in reducing apparent complexity, whilst increasing the range of valid choices and tools with which their citizens feel content. They will take active steps to manage alienation and alarm. They will do this without evoking nationalism, a collective identity or a prescriptive approach to anything but process.

The poor nations may lack the capacity to link easily to structures of such complexity and sophistication. There are, however, plainly a range of new structures which are needed to manage these new or more intense interfaces. All manner of gaps will open as the capable power ahead, the elderly and less able lag behind and as new and unhappy options become apparent to the unpoliced aspects of the world. A confident industrial world can take the initiative in developing a co-operative, rather than an aggressive response to this.

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