Omni-networked Societies

As the saying goes, the more you know, the more you know you don't know. The City will make more knowledge available than you and I could ever dream of.

Nevertheless, it will probably just teach us how much we still have to learn about ourselves and the universe.

In today's literate societies, the resistance to the flow of knowledge is so great that hardly anyone can ever learn enough to get an accurate bird's eye view of humanity's collective knowledge. We don't even know what we know.

Societies that will have access to the City will be "omni-networked." These are societies in which the wealth of human cultural knowledge will be universally available.

The spread of universal literacy, which began in the 19th century in most of the industrialized countries, has had an incalculable impact on human life.

Likewise, hardly any aspect of human life will remain unchanged by transliteracy and the new communications technologies of the next half century. In this final part of the essay, I'd like to describe a little of what I think about the future omni-networked societies.

Commerce as information

As an old Catalan proverb says, On hi ha comerc, hi ha vida: where there's commerce, there's life. Commerce is the blood of nations. I like to think of it as another form of communication.

Through commerce, innovations quickly get diffused around the globe. Even when other forms of communication fail, commerce usually carries the day -- even enemies have to trade.

You only have to realize that money is really nothing but data to get an idea of the tidal changes lurking ahead. Paper money and coinage are very crude ways of storing knowledge about wealth.

As financial transactions go electronic, the pace of business gets hotter. More money sloshes around the globe during a few days' time in the 1990's than during an entire year in the 1960's, with much of that movement of money tied to speculation on currency fluctuations.

Economies will become more complex, more nonlinear, and more difficult to keep track of. Competition will sharpen. Even the slightest differences in quality or price will loom large in such a sensitive, well-informed marketing environment.

The City will bring an exciting era of trade, as never seen before. It'll be a different kind of trade, though.

Physical materials won't be exchanged as much as designs and knowledge will be. Manufacturing will be as local as possible.

What will move will be designs that provide know-how about how to build things using local materials. This reminds me of waves on the ocean; even though the wave energy travels great distances, the water itself just bobs up and down.

The City will make it possible to trade many things which aren't commodities today. Knowledge will be a commodity to be bought and sold, for example, just as wheat or petroleum get traded today.

Commodity trading has the advantage of eventually settling on prices that realistically reflect the worth and availability of goods and services. When prices climb too high, people stop buying, prompting the sellers to lower their prices to encourage people to buy again.

If prices drop too far, though, people will spy a bargain and lunge to buy, making it possible for the seller to ask for higher prices. The market is complex and dynamic, but the overall result -- the form that emerges -- is accurate pricing. It's not necessary for the traders ever to see what they're buying.

All that actually changes hands is the control of the commodity, which is really just knowledge. For that reason, world trade will be much more fluid as a result of the City's superior knowledge-processing power.

Clean air and clean water will become commodities, too. Before anything can become a commodity, however, there has to be some way to know much of it you have.

The clean air trade has begun in the 1990's with international agreements limit the amount of CFC's (chlorofluorocarbons) that each country may release.

CFC's are known to destroy the ozone layer in the atmosphere that protect living things from deadly ultraviolet radiation. Some countries sell their CFC "credits" to other countries.

Trading precious resources like clean air and water will create tremendous market pressure to invent and implement more ecologically sound ways of doing things.

The City will provide the information-processing needed to quantify damages done to assets through contamination of the air and water. (Real estate in Los Angeles would probably be more valuable if there weren't any smog.)

Those damages will be imputed to the polluters, both great and small. Hitting 'em where it counts is the best way to get things cleaned up. It's also the best way to make cleaner but more expensive technologies cost effective.

The "invisible hand" that Adam Smith wrote about is another example of information, another example of spontaneously emerging form and structure. A market is mostly a chaotic system, something like an ecosystem.

There's no way to successfully predict or control it. The form which emerges out of the hurly-burly of the market is the structure of economic relationships between groups of people. Those economic relationships are what organize production of the goods and services that people need and want.

In other words, a market is an informational system that creates wealth. The same hallmarks of information are present in markets that are also present in biological systems: diversity, competition, freedom, and selection.

Ideally, the consumer should provide the selection. Putting control over selection in the hands of consumers maximizes the flexibility and appropriateness of the market.

When the state interferes in markets, the results are often disappointing because it's difficult to engineer efficient economic relationships, just as it's impossible to know which genetic mutations will turn out to be beneficial.

The City will help markets operate more fairly and efficiently by providing buyers with useful knowledge about competing products, and by providing producers with useful knowledge about the buyers' interests.

It will be tougher for producers to cheat consumers because the City will provide consumers with copious on-the-spot knowledge about each producer.

Marketing the mind

Capitalism isn't really an "ism" in the sense of being an ideology. When a society becomes rich enough, some of its surplus money can be traded as a commodity, if people are given enough freedom to do so.

Capital is really just money that's tradable enough to become a commodity.

Throughout history, there have been societies that have forbidden the trade in money. Islam, for example, forbids lending money for a profit. For many centuries, the Roman Catholic Church also forbade the buying and selling of money.

As a result, some of the capital needed for financing the cathedrals of Europe came from Jewish lenders, who weren't constrained by the Catholic ban on usury.

During the 20th century, Marxist-Leninist societies also prohibited the selling of money by anyone except the bureaucrats who ran the state banks.

The institutions associated with capitalism -- banks, stock exchanges, insurance companies, and so on -- have developed over the centuries as marketplaces for commerce in money.

Capital is a special kind of commodity because it can be conveniently traded for almost any kind of goods or services. No other commodity has such universal appeal.

As a result, financial marketplaces are in fact very spiritual. Intangible, psychological products -- not just pure capital -- are what such markets really provide. Insurance companies buy risk and sell peace of mind.

Confidence is the invisible commodity that gets bought and sold in stock markets. Banks essentially sell trust.

The first insurance companies were started in London coffeehouses during the early days of British colonialism by merchants who wanted to share the enormous risks they undertook in shipping expensive goods across dangerous seas.

Pooling their risks made it much easier to raise the huge quantities of capital needed in the shipping business.

An insurance company buys your risk from you and sells you security. The company profits by the fact that -- on the whole -- the security they sell ends up being more valuable than the risk they buy.

Capital is such a fluid and transferable commodity that it can be exchanged even for something as insubstantial as risk.

Running a prosperous business usually depends on the coordinated activities of many people who may all have widely differing and sometimes even conflicting interests.

It would be nearly impossible to successfully coordinate their activities through coercion or persuasion.

The business needs to raise fresh capital for motivating those activities. Stock markets are an important source of capital. One of the spiritual commodities sold in stock markets is confidence.

By buying stock in a company, investors are expressing confidence that it will continue to grow and prosper. In exchange for their confidence, investors receive dividends -- a portion of the company's profits -- and a stake in the company's growing worth.

Financial institutions such as stock markets make it possible to motivate and coordinate complex business relationships on the basis of confidence rather than coercion or persuasion.

Confidence turns out to be a much more dynamic and creative motivator of economic activity.

Besides capital, among the financial services sold by banks is trust, or trustworthiness. Depositors lend their savings to banks, trusting that the bank maintains enough liquidity to redeem their deposits whenever they wish.

Trust is an extremely valuable spiritual commodity. Selling it raises large amounts of fresh capital, which banks can also sell for a profit.

Each of the spiritual commodities associated with capital markets is somehow related to two powerful human emotions: fear and greed. Of those two, fear is the strongest.

People usually feel greedy only after the pangs of fear have subsided a bit. During times of relative stability, both fear and greed drive markets.

When fear dominates, though, markets become recessionary, as everyone prefers taking fewer risks, and therefore spends less.

When greed reigns, on the other hand, markets become inflationary and excessively burdened by debt as everyone tends to spend recklessly.

Both fear and greed are caused by ignorance. They're irrational responses to the uncertainty of the world.

Fear arises from not being able to think of a way out of your present troubles. Greed is a kind of uncontrollable, cancerous growth in your psychological defenses.

As the City spreads access to useful knowledge, fear and greed won't bully markets as much. Markets will function more smoothly as a result.

The City will also be a shopping center for a cornucopia of new financial services. Most of those services will be bought and sold by Facers and other kinds of knowledge-processing robots.

Social structures and information

Who hasn't experienced the frustration and disillusionment of dealing with a bureaucracy? Despite appearances, a bureaucracy's foremost interest is to look after its own well-being. Bureaucracies are self-sustaining, self-perpetuating systems.

Mediocrity prevails among bureaucrats, because their main priority ends up being to do the minimum necessary to keep the bureaucracy functioning.

Bureaucratic systems discourage creativity and imagination as being too risky and not worth the trouble.

Bureaucracies blur responsibilities, tempting bureaucrats to shuffle tasks to others. Bureaucrats have little incentive to exercise personal initiative.

Bureaucracy poisons societies. A bureaucratized society is torpid and uninspired. One of the City's most beneficial impacts will be the disintegration of bureaucracies.

Most bureaucracies are hierarchies, or pyramid-shaped organizations. A hierarchy is a type of closed network. Closed networks restrict access to certain people, usually the people who make decisions.

Hierarchies confine communication links mainly to the vertical relationships in the organization.

In an open network, everyone has direct access to everyone else. Communication links are very dense, and the entire network is completely connected.

An open network can be much more dynamic and efficient than a closed one. In a closed network, only a few people are connected to everyone in the network, and then only indirectly.

In hierarchies, for example, the further up in the pyramid you go, the more people in the network you're connected with, but only indirectly -- through the people beneath you.

In terms of knowledge-processing -- collecting, selecting, connecting, and correcting -- it's clear that an open network provides much more thorough collection than a hierarchy does.

Close networks limit the collection of knowledge, because only some communication links are strong and active. Decision-makers at the top of the hierarchical pyramid rely on people beneath them to filter the knowledge flowing up the pyramid.

As knowledge gets passed up and down the vertical chain of command, it gets distorted in unpredictable ways-making it less reliable.

Each person in the chain may make unpredictable assumptions about what knowledge to pass up or down the chain.

The hierarchical structure also impedes feedback to decision-makers at the top of the pyramid from people at lower echelons.

That means that the decision-makers won't be able to collect all the knowledge that's available to make wise decisions. Decision-makers in a poorly functioning bureaucracy grow insulated and out-of-touch. The result, as we all know, is that bureaucracies are usually inept.

Hierarchies often discourage people at lower echelons from making independent decisions. They concentrate decision-making in the hands of a few people at the top of the pyramid.

Only people at the top of the pyramid are connected with enough people to be able to make decisions pertaining to the hierarchy as a whole.

People lower on the pyramid can't benefit from the flow of knowledge from other parts. That hinders the structure as a whole from functioning in a cohesive and well-coordinated way.

The hierarchical structure does provide one important advantage. In a hierarchy, the structure of the organization itself serves to gather and filter communications so that the centers of power don't get swamped by anti-information.

Each echelon in the hierarchy accumulates and buffers the messages that get passed to the echelon above. The trouble with open networks is that anti-information can quickly strangle communications and bring things to a dead halt. Imagine what would happen if everyone in the U.S. could get a direct line to the Oval Office of the White House.

The phone line would be so jammed with trivial calls that the necessary ones wouldn't get through. The President wouldn't be able to gather or filter the knowledge needed to make decisions.

Literate societies, such as ours, have relatively poor communications. The main reason we're stuck with bureaucracies today is that it's still the most efficient organizational structure possible with such poor information-processing tools.

It's interesting that the bureaucratic pattern was already well-established in the very earliest literate societies, such as the Shang dynasty of ancient China, as well as in Sumer.

In an open network, it's harder to get away with "passing the buck" because everyone in the network is in closer communication.

Also, the open network structure shifts decision-making responsibility away from power "centers." It frees individuals to make decisions pertaining to their own domains of responsibility.

Omni-networked societies will be organized in very small but intelligently coordinated "squads," rather than sprawling, monolithic bureaucracies.

The term I like to use for the breakdown of bureaucracies into smaller, highly coordinated groups is micronizing.

Micronizing creates many power centers, each with a unique approach to its own problems. Micronized societies have more informationally effective structures because they can tolerate and exploit more diversity.

Their informational "metabolism" runs at a higher rate -- they can collect, select, connect, and correct knowledge more vigorously.

As communications improve, micronizing is irresistible. The urge to micronize gnaws away at the power of any institution that resists the free flow of knowledge -- no matter how firmly established.

In just a few years, it shattered one of the most potent empires on earth -- the USSR -- after Gorbachev began the policy of glasnost (which means "openness" in Russian).

Once communication in the Soviet Union was no longer restricted to vertical channels in the bureaucracy, unofficial power centers began to proliferate uncontrollably.

Before glasnost, telephone directories and photocopiers were available only to a few people, and the press was carefully controlled by Soviet bureaucrats.

As more people got access to tools for communicating with each other, central control slipped out of the hands of the Soviet bureaucracy.

It's interesting to note that micronizing is a strategy employed throughout the biological world. Many biological systems work by shooting a swarm of cheap arrows at their target rather than spending all their resources on a couple of expensive ones.

That maximizes the chances that at least one arrow will hit the target. Micronizing helps the living system to succeed against incredible odds because each of the cheap arrows is slightly different.

No matter how complex or unpredictable the target, chances are better that with many different kinds of arrows, at least one of them will succeed.

Micronizing is a strategy that works well in turbulent, uncertain environments, where the ability to adapt and improvise counts more than having things perfect on the first try.

Smart production

The way people work will change. The City will micronize economic relationships. One result will be the gradual elimination of the employer-employee relationship.

Some economists have noted that this relationship exists as a result of the need to simplify transactions. A consumer buying a company's product pays everyone who participated in producing it, all with a single transaction.

In societies with relatively poor communication systems, such as 20th century societies, the employer-employee relationship is a great help in organizing economic activity.

In omni-networked societies, the employer-employee model for organization will actually become a disadvantage. Employment has a subtle but devastating effect: it deprives employees of the responsibility of fending for themselves.

This gradually destroys their ability to think and act creatively, and it can also erode their sense of self-worth. In the competitive markets of omni-networked societies, however, creativity will be too valuable to be sacrificed to employment.

Powerful information-processing machines in the City will be able to cope with the labyrinthine accounting relationships that will crop up as more and more people become self-employed, contractual workers.

Even now, industries such as aerospace already involve extensive networks of contractors and sub-contractors. In omni-networked societies, legions of micro-companies, each with just a handful of workers, will compete for contracts over vast electronic labor networks.

The City will micronize even the methods of industrial production. Mass production distributes the high cost of designing a product across a large number of identical units of that product.

When natural resources are cheap and design is expensive, mass production has a great advantage over "craft production." Craft production was what prevailed before mass production. Artisans designed and produced their goods individually.

Under craft production, goods were very expensive. Mass production has made it possible for people with average means to afford a wide range of goods, and it has greatly enriched people in the 20th century.

With better information-processing, design becomes cheaper. Growing pressures on the environment will probably make natural resources more expensive. The result will be the development of "smart" production.

Consumers will come to demand individually designed products that are laden with clever features. In many ways, smart production will resemble craft production.

Whereas mass production automates the actual production of goods, smart production will automate their design. It will also automate the design and production of the machines that produce the goods.

The change from mass production to smart production will mean the gradual extinction of "mass culture," the culture of Andy Warhol's Campbell soup cans, each identical to the next.

In the 20th century, we take it for granted that each product unit will be identical to the next; we've become inured to the uniformity of mass culture.

Social services as commodities

One interesting commodity that the City will make tradeable will be government services. We don't think of government services as being a commodity today because the state tightly controls them.

In societies before the emergence of the City, markets are never sophisticated or informed enough to be able to set realistic prices for government services.

Most people are too self-interested to want to buy the right to provide social welfare insurance for a nation's citizens; they don't see any direct profit in it. Most societies don't want to entrust law enforcement or national defense to the market, either.

Those responsibilities have always been left to the state. The state demands a monopoly over providing those services, and then makes everyone a "customer" through taxation.

In the omni-networked societies created by the City, government services will be provided mostly on a "pay-as-you-use" basis. This would be like the postal services today, except that there would be competing providers of services instead of a government monopoly.

This can be very tricky because it's hard to know exactly how much each person owes for any given service. Some benefits are highly tangential or indirect, and the relationship between the state and the individual is very complex.

Taxation greatly simplifies the state's accounting relationship with individual citizens, just as employment simplifies transactions between consumers and producers.

Everyone should be held accountable to pay for only and all those government services they consume, whether direct or indirect.

Notice that finding out what each person owes requires gathering and filtering knowledge to make it useful. The City will provide the vast information-processing potential needed to sort out each person's debts for government services.

Once each citizen's indebtedness for government services can be measured, then the right to perform those services can be traded as a commodity. This will quickly lead to almost complete privatization of government services, with private service providers competing for contracts.

The danger here is that the market for government services won't be completely free, because corruption or political favoritism will distort it.

Major privatization of government won't be feasible without the bright glare of City lights to expose such injustices and inefficiencies.

In politics, we'll probably see just the opposite of what George Orwell predicted. Instead of governments becoming more monolithic and intrusive, they'll become weaker and more fragmented as power gets devolved to increasingly local political levels.

Democracy, the marketplace of rulers, will condense to finer and finer domains of choice. People will not be asked to vote on matters that don't directly concern them.

Candidates won't have to appeal to an impossibly wide voter market by reducing themselves to a least common denominator -- the least unacceptable candidate to the greatest number of voters. Politics will become increasingly micro-electoral.

This change will be impossible without sophisticated information-processing tools to sort through the complexities of such a proliferation of political units and interest groups.

Nor will it be possible without powerful new communications tools for use in coordinating the anarchic explosion of competing and divergent political entities.

Transliteracy and the law

From the days of Hammurabi's Code in ancient Mesopotamia, regulating social behavior through written laws has been one of the sweetest fruits of literacy.

Transliteracy will bring about major changes in the law, however. Because laws are subject to words, they're subject to the Babel Barrier. Many actions fall between laws, and legal professionals have to know how to manage those gray zones.

Although the Old City -- the digital part of the City -- would in fact be able to handle a numbingly vast collection of constantly changing laws, each applying only to a tiny group of people, an entirely new kind of legal system will probably develop, instead, that will rely on the New City -- the nonlinguistic part.

Rather than being made up of written laws, which are like propositions, the new legal system will consist of permission and prohibition zones.

As Facers move through the knowledge space, they pass in and out of those zones. The prohibition zones repel Facers in the same way that like magnetic poles repel each other.

The more the Facer penetrates the forbidden zone, the stronger the repulsion becomes. As a Facer enters a zone of prohibition, it can warn its human employer, if necessary, so the human understands why the Facer doesn't press deeper.

Not only will Facers be able to respond to the legal zones governing the City, they'll also be able to advise humans about legal zones governing human activity, because knowledge about those zones will reside in the City's knowledge space.

Law serves an important function in society -- it mediates between the differing, and often conflicting, interests of all the diverse parties that make up a society.

Without the law, individuals and groups would be left to settle their differences through force or connivance. In principle, the law makes way for settling those differences more fairly and beneficially overall.

Through the legal knowledge stored in its knowledge space, the City can help coordinate and broker the disparate interests in a society.

Learner-driven education

The City represents a revolution in the way knowledge is created and distributed. That means that education will probably be transformed more than any other part of society.

Since a knowledge space has no beginning or end, and any path through it is as good as any other, perhaps learning will be more motivated by curiosity than by the dictates of a pre-set curriculum.

Education will become a fully life-long process with no particular time of life for going to school. School will never be further away than the nearest multimedia communications device, or TV-book.

The aim of education will be to foster curiosity and creativity, rather than trying to stuff as much knowledge into the learner's head as possible, as education attempts to do today.

A learner's memory will simply be no match for the knowledge-processing power of the City.

The City will always be able to make relevant knowledge more abundantly available than your memory ever could -- and much more accurately, as well.

Human beings are naturally curious. That trait is more noticeable in children than in adults, who've often had their curiosity beaten out of them by the humdrum of daily life. Knowledge itself ignites curiosity.

The more you know, the more you're interested in learning. As you learn, you create your own personal knowledge space. The richer and broader that knowledge space, the more "pegs" you have upon which to hang new knowledge.

You can learn the details of a subject much more quickly after you've already acquired the coarse brushstrokes of knowledge in that area.

Memorizing raw, anti-informative knowledge is probably the surest way to kill curiosity. In pre-networked societies, we have to rely on our memories as repositories for knowledge because printed media are too inefficient to make it available exactly when, where, and how we need it.

In order to be able to function well in their professions, pre-networked people are forced to memorize copious amounts of raw knowledge. Only after years of experience on the job does much of that knowledge ever get turned into wisdom.

Besides, much of what a professional learns while in training quickly evaporates anyway, or else turns stale and outdated by changes in the field.

The fundamental change that will take place in education is that as the result of new mind tools -- and the resulting changes in attitudes toward knowledge -- education will become learner-driven rather than teacher-driven.

Teachers, if they exist at all, will serve more as learning consultants than as knowledge-dispensers. In a sense, this is another example of micronizing. The educational bureacracy, which embraces kindergartens to universities, will disintegrate.

In its place will arise the intimate relationship between the individual and the collective human knowledge space.

It's interesting to speculate on how people will think who are at ease traveling through the richly interconnected, hyper-fluid world of the City's knowledge space.

They'll be used to coping with categories of knowledge that have continuously shifting boundaries. They'll be at home in a maze of equally valid viewpoints for every issue.

Also, they'll perhaps be more predisposed to seeing things holistically, looking for the "patterns which connect," to use Gregory Bateson's phrase.

The word "academy" comes from the Greek word for "grove of poplars," referring to the place in Athens where the philosophers met to learn and to think.

Nothing can be a perfect substitute for personal contact. People will still meet in academies and laboratories to do research and exchange observations.

Children will still meet to play together at school. However, Facers will give each child lessons much more skillfully than teachers have time for today.

A child's Facer will be able to connect the knowledge much more tightly with what the child already knows than a teacher could ever do, who has the responsibility for educating children in several classrooms.

Twentieth century educators will be horrified to witness the degree of freedom each child has for choosing what to learn. With the help of Facers, children will teach themselves.

They'll learn at an early age to take on the responsibility for their own education, which will grow to fill a vital part of their adult lives, as well.


All this freedom and rich access to knowledge will bring on a supernova-like burst of new inventions and technologies. The world's knowledge base will proliferate so quickly that trying to protect inventions using copyrights or patents will be like trying to dam the tide.

With information so easy to manipulate, patents will be too easy to breach to be useful. Inventors will be paid for their potential for creativity, as judged by what they've accomplished already.

One new field that will most likely develop is what's sometimes called nano-technology -- nano means "a billionth."

Richard Feynman, a prominent physicist, gave a lecture in the early 'sixties called "There's still plenty of room at the bottom."

He predicted that miraculous new tools will be invented as physicists learn to manipulate objects the size of single atoms.

Many of Feynman's prophesies are already coming to pass. In recent years, the tunneling microscope has made possible viewing individual atoms. Other applications for it have also been developed, such as "writing" with single atoms.

Someday it will be possible to build microscopically small robots for use in some truly mind-boggling applications.

For example, doctors will release armies of robots smaller than single cells, called nano-robots, which will search and destroy cancer cell-by-cell.

Nano-robots will also assemble new materials atom-by-atom to make composites with truly magical qualities: stronger, more flexible, more durable, and so on.

These new nano-technologies could be miraculously helpful, or gruesomely disastrous, depending on how wisely we can use and control them.

Some nano-robots will also be bio-robots -- they'll be made partly out of organic materials, such as specially engineered proteins or enzymes. Bio-robots will have interesting applications in genetics.

They'll make it possible to write new genetic sequences base-by-base. As a result, genetic engineering may advance so quickly that it will be possible to design and grow made-to-order life forms for specific uses.

We might design new kinds of people from scratch. Imagine a space probe that had a brain grafted into it, for example.

The probe would truly be a person, but its body would be made of special materials designed to protect the brain against the harshness of interstellar space.

It would be a cybernetic creature born to explore the galaxy. It would be happiest in the silence of space.

Virtual immortality

Nano-robots and bio-robots will lead to stunning developments in medicine. These technologies will destroy the line separating body from tool, and self from world. Our bodies will become just as maintainable and modifiable as cars, for example, are today.

We'll be able to design special organ and limb transplants. The transplant tissue will be designed so that the patient's immune system recognizes it as "self," not "invader."

Not only will those organs and limbs replace failed ones, they'll even be designed to work better for certain jobs -- eyes that let you see more of the electromagnetic spectrum, olfactory bulbs that give you a better sense of smell than a bloodhound has, and so on.

A newly designed body part will incorporate materials that will give it unearthly qualities, such as withstanding great heat or radiation, going without food or oxygen for a long time, or being stronger than steel.

Whenever a body part stops working as it should, a replacement can be ordered up and installed to keep everything running smoothly.

In principle, a person could go on living indefinitely this way.

At some point, someone will be born who will end up living indefinitely. Let's call that person Angel Zero, because he or she will be the first person to attain indefinite life.

Angel Zero's date-of-birth is an interesting point in history. Everyone born before that date dies within the usual span of life, but some people born after it live indefinitely long. That date is a limen of immortality.

Although improvements in medicine during the 20th century haven't necessarily raised the average lifespan, they have made it possible for some individuals to live a bit longer.

The longer you manage to stay alive, the more improvements in medicine you might be able to take advantage of -- and so, the longer still you might live.

Let's call that the nine-lives principle. If you elude death long enough by taking advantage of partial advances in medicine, you may reach the age of nano-technology when you can benefit from total organ replacement.

Because of the nine-lives principle, Angel Zero may already be alive today. We may already have passed the limen of immortality, and some babies being born today may go on living in some form for thousands of years.

The limits of virtuality

In Neuromancer, William Gibson wrote about "cyber-space," the collective data grid combining both human nervous systems and the global computer network.

The characters in the novel could "jack into" cyberspace using a coupling device on their head. The line separating humans from computers had disappeared entirely.

Plugging a computer system directly into the human brain is still a long way off. A machine that could read what was in the brain would have to be at least as complex as the brain itself. Nano-technology may provide a way to take a stimulating ride through the City, however.

Imagine nano-robots that lodge themselves directly in the cells of the person's sense organs. They could stimulate the retina cells to make a person "see" moving images transmitted from the City.

Likewise, nano-robots that had burrowed into the inner ear could make the person hear sounds sent from the City. To complete this virtual reality, even the nerve cells in the skin could have nano-robotic implants.

The sense organs are the gateways to consciousness in more ways than we realize. Those organs are integrated with the brain much more thoroughly than, for example, a printer or monitor is integrated with one of today's computers.

The eyes are in fact a direct extension of the brain itself, and are responsible not only for gathering images from the world, but also for partially "processing" them. Your personal view of reality is affected by how your sense organs function, not just by your brain.

When imagining a machine that would connect a computer system directly to a person's mind, we usually think of plugging it into the skull. Maybe it makes more sense that it would plug into the eyes and ears instead.

Engineers and researchers are already working on virtual reality machines. To use them, you put on visors that have screens in them. Very fast computers running expensive software generate the images of a virtual world. When you turn or tilt your head, the images change accordingly.

Many virtual reality systems also include gloves with sensors in them that let you point at objects in the virtual world, or to signal to the computer which way you'd like to travel. Virtual reality technology today is crude, but developing quickly.

Using nano-technology, cell-sized sensors in the muscles of your eyes would signal to the computer which way you're looking -- in other words, what you're looking at in virtual reality.

Sensors in the muscles of your hand would let you point to objects in the virtual world, just like using a mouse with today's computers.

Your field of vision might have more than one "window." A couple of windows might be showing Vid images from the City, while another window continues to let in light from the outside.

Needless to say, such powerful tools raise some questions that frighten 20th century people. Could cellular machines in your sense organs also be used to transmit what you're seeing and hearing moment-to-moment to the City? Won't we lose touch with what's "really real"?

How the network will grow

Although the City is probably still quite a long way off, the dense, global communications network out of which it will emerge is already well under construction. The City will probably get built without any political leadership directing its design and construction.

It'll emerge from the separate activities of countless people who are merely trying to earn a living, and will have no idea they're participating in the creation of something so revolutionary as a new, global mind.

Piece by piece, the City is being built today. Each meter of new fiber optic cable laid, and each new computer, modem, or telephone installed, represents a small step toward the realization of the City.

Many extensive computer networks are already in use: Arpanet, Bitnet, CompuServe, to give just a handful of examples. An interesting network is Usenet, which doesn't have a corporate or institutional sponsor; it has developed spontaneously.

Better communications cause societies and markets to reorganize, and this in turn creates a demand for still better communications, and so on in an ever-climbing spiral.

As ISDN (the Integrated Services Digital Network protocol) and fiber optics gradually get implemented, an amazing range of new information services will become possible.

At first, such services may be little more than gimmicks, but as markets for information services mature, the products offered will become more useful.

Market pressures are primarily what will fuel the development of the City. The best thing that governments can do to help is to get out of the way.

The present effort to develop a global mobile satellite telephone system serves as a good example of the resistance of governments to change.

Such a system would make communication possible between any two points on the planet's surface. In 1990, over half the world's population lived more than a two hour's journey away from a telephone.

Access to communications is usually a threat to oppressive regimes, as clearly seen in the case of the revolutions in Eastern Europe from 1989 to 1991.

In March of 1992, the World Administrative Radio Conference, which helps regulate how countries use the global radio spectrum, agreed to allocate a chunk of frequencies for use by satellite telephone systems.

Many governments resist giving permission to build satellite phone systems, fearing loss of control over communications in their countries. The hurdles to be overcome are often as much political as technological.

In future, government will probably serve mostly as a forum or information clearinghouse fostering communication and coordinated activity, rather than as a bureaucratic center of command and control.

Government will work like an elaborate bulletin board service, a sophisticated descendant of the ones already set up by computer hobbyists worldwide.

Government will work like electronic meeting rooms where interested parties set up and build consensus on jointly beneficial standards, where they spread news of infractions of those standards, and where they agree on ways for their enforcement.

It may seem impossible that societies with highly efficient communications and knowledge-processing systems could actually exist without any kind of government.

That's because it's hard to imagine how densely communicated an omni-networked society will be as a result of the City. Every financial transaction made, every trip taken, and every resource consumed will all be registered in the City.

The flood of data will be too great to wade through by hand. Facers and digital machines in the City can sort through those mountains of data, however, and draw conclusions about what the effects of present social trends will probably be. Many policies will apply only to machines.

"That-government-is-best-which-governs-least" politics is a natural result of micronizing, and is an irresistible effect of the City's development. Government will grow less dirigiste, less interventionist.

The government's role as a society's watchdog and regulator will be played by intricate communications networks rather than by civil service bureaucrats.

Vigilance and regulation will arise as information -- the form that emerges -- which will be abundantly supplied by those networks.

Such flat-out, laissez-faire politics would probably prove to be a mess if it weren't for the City's supremely advanced communications services.

On the other hand, trying to impose on an omni-networked society the kind of bureaucratic control common with today's democratic governments would be just as crude as appointing an Egyptian Pharoah to be absolute ruler of modern America.

Considering the communications and knowledge-processing tools available to the ancient Egyptians, the Pharoah's brain was probably the optimal seat of government at the time.

The modern, democratic form of government is possible mainly because of printing. Benjamin Franklin, whom we recognize as one of the founding thinkers of the American government, made his living as a printer.

He envisioned the power of the press to micronize the authority of monarchs. In the 18th century, printing would have been at least as high-tech as computers are today.

To the establishment of the time, the political ideas behind the French and American revolutions seemed like insane anarchy.

We shouldn't be surprised to see 20th century people reacting the same way today as governments begin to disintegrate under the impact of new technologies.

Michael Webb, 1992

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