Anatomy of Impossibility

Reprint:  Why the Impossible Happens More Often

I’ve had to persuade myself to believe in the impossible more often. In the past several decades I’ve encountered a series of ideas that I was conditioned to think were impossibilities, but which turned out to be good practical ideas. For instance, I had my doubts about the online flea market called eBay when it first came out. Pay money to a stranger selling a car you have not seen? Everything I had been taught about human nature suggested this could not work. Yet today, strangers selling automobiles is the major profit center for the very successful eBay corporation.

I thought the idea of an encyclopedia that anyone could change at any time to be a non-starter, a hopeless romantic idea with no chance of working. It seemed to go against my general understanding of human nature and group interaction. I was so wrong. Today I use Wikipedia at least once a day.

Twenty years ago if I had been paid to convince an audience of reasonable, educated people that in 20 years time we’d have street and satellite maps for the entire world on our personal hand held phone devices — for free — and with street views for many cities — I would not be able to do it. I could not have made an economic case for how this could come about “for free.” It was starkly impossible back then.

These supposed impossibilities keep happening with increased frequency. Everyone “knew” that people don’t work for free, and if they did, they could not make something useful without a boss. But today entire sections of our economy run on software instruments created by volunteers working without pay or bosses. Everyone knew humans were innately private beings, yet the impossibility of total open round-the-clock sharing still occurred. Everyone knew that humans are basically lazy, and they would rather watch than create, and they would never get off their sofas to create their own TV. It would be impossible that millions of amateurs would produce billions of hours of video, or that anyone would watch any of it. Like Wikipedia, or Linux, YouTube is theoretically impossible. But here this impossibility is real in practice.

This list goes on, old impossibilities appearing as new possibilities daily. But why now? What is happening to disrupt the ancient impossible/possible boundary?

In a word: emergence. As far as I can tell the impossible things that happen now are in every case manifestations of a new, bigger level of organization. They are the result of large-scale collaboration, or immense collections of information, or global structures, or gigantic real-time social interactions. Just as a tissue is a new, bigger level of organization for a bunch of individual cells, these new social structures are a new bigger level for individual humans. And in both cases the new level breeds emergence. New behaviors emerge from the new level that were impossible at the lower level. Tissue can do things that cells can’t. The collectivist organizations of wikipedia, Linux, the web can do things that industrialized humans could not.

Humans have long invented new social organizations, from law, courts, irrigation systems, schools, governments, libraries, and at the largest scale, civilization itself. These social instruments are what makes us human — and what makes our behavior “impossible” from the vantage of animals. For instance when we invented writing, written records and laws enabled a type of egalitarianism not possible in our cousins the primates, and and not present in oral cultures. The cooperation and coordination breed by irrigation and agriculture produced yet more impossible behaviors of anticipation and preparation, and sensitivity to the future. Human society unleashed all kinds of previously impossible human behaviors into the biosphere.

The technium is accelerating the creation of new impossibilities by continuing to invent new social organizations. The genius of eBay was its invention of cheap, easy, and quick reputation status. Strangers could sell to strangers at a great distance because we now had a technology to quickly assign persistent reputations to those beyond our circle. That lowly innovation opened up a new kind of higher level coordination that permitted a new kind of exchange (remote purchasing among strangers) that was impossible before. The “revert log” button on Wikipedia, which made it easier to restore a vandalized passage than to vandalize it, unleashed a new higher organization of trust, emphasizing one facet of human behavior not enabled at a large scale before.

We have just begun to fiddle with social communications. Hypertext, wi-fi, GPS location services are just the beginning. The majority of the most amazing communication inventions that are possible have not been invented yet. We are also just in the infancy of turning on at a truly global scale. When we are woven together into a global real-time society, the impossibilities will really start to erupt. It is not necessary that we invent some kind of autonomous global consciousness. It is only necessary that we connect everyone to everyone else. Hundreds of miracles that seem impossible today will be possible with this shared human awareness.

I am looking forward to having my mind changed a lot in the coming years. I think we’ll be surprised by how many things we assumed were “natural” for humans are not really, and how many impossible ideas are possible. “Everyone knows” that humans are warlike, and like war, but I would guess organized war will become less and less attractive over time as new means of social conflict and social conflict resolution arise at a global level. Not that people will cease killing each other; just that deliberate ritualistic battle over territories will be displaced by other activities — like terrorism, extreme sports, subversion, mafias, and organized crime. The new technologies of social media will unleash whole new ways to lie, cheat, steal and kill. As they are already doing. (Nefarious hackers use social media to identify corporate network administrators, and their personal off-time hobbies, and then spoof a gift of a cool new product from their favorite company, which when opened, takes over their computer and thence the network they are in charge of.) Yes, many of the impossible things we can expect will be impossibly bad.

They will be beyond our imagining because the level at which they are enabled is hard for us to picture. In large groups the laws of statistics take over and our brains have not evolved to do statistics. The amount of data tracked is inhuman; the magnitudes of giga, peta, and exa don’t really mean anything to us; it’s the vocabulary of machines. Collectively we behave differently than individuals. Much more importantly, as individuals we behave differently in collectives.

This has been true a long while. What’s new is the velocity at which we a headed into this higher territory of global connectivity. We are swept up in a tectonic shift toward large, fast, social organizations connecting us in novel ways. There may be a million different ways to connect a billion people, and each way will reveal something new about us. Something hidden previously. Others have named this emergence the Noosphere, or MetaMan, or Hive Mind. We don’t have a good name for it yet.
Noosphere 320 LowRes 1

The Noosphere Sculpture by Yves Jeason

I’ve used the example of the bee before. One could exhaustively study a honey bee for centuries and never see in the lone individual any of the behavior of a bee hive. it is just not there, and can not emerge until there are a mass of bees. A single bee lives 6 weeks, so a memory of several years is impossible, but that’s how long a hive of individual bees can remember. Humanity is migrating towards its hive mind. Most of what “everybody knows” about us is based on the human individual. Collectively, connected humans will be capable of things we cannot imagine right now. These future phenomenon will rightly seem impossible. What’s coming is so unimaginable that the impossibility of wikipedia will recede into outright obviousness.

Connected, in real time, in multiple dimensions, at an increasingly global scale, in matters large and small, with our permission, we will operate at a new level, and we won’t cease surprising ourselves with impossible achievements.

My prediction is that in the coming years our biggest surprises — the ones that aren’t predicted — will be the result some new method of large scale social interactions. While we will get good at predicting the next advance of technological innovation, we won’t get very good at predicting what happens with the hive mind. And exploring the hive mind — the thousands of ways in which we can connect and reconnect ourselves — will be the chief activity of our civilization in the near term. If I am right then we’ll have to get better at believing in the impossible.

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