The Networked Episteme
The world we know is ending; it is being made anew. And while this is timed to be published ahead of the results of the U.S. Presidential election, I am not referring to that outcome, whatever it may be.
Three personal anecdotes from last week:
- My father is 86 and my mother is 79. They are traveling across India right now, and have kept their children in the U.S. updated with photos and videos sent instantly over WhatsApp (said photos and videos are mostly concerned with food, consumption of).
- I belong to a closed Facebook group for alumni of my university who interview undergraduate applicants. The group has thousands of members in dozens of countries; and is a place for us to share ideas and knowledge. Last week was the first week of interview "season", and the friendly posts have started.
- I was on a business-related video call, with participants in the Bay Area and Singapore. It wasn't perfect -- it wasn't "like being in the same room" -- but it was pretty darn effective.
Each of us has hundreds of these stories and moments every day — these happen to be three personal ones. They are deliberately trite and prosaic; there appears to be nothing magical or revolutionary here. A couple of older folks now use the Internet; there’s a random Facebook group; I did a video call. Whoop-dee-doo. Right?
Wrong. In these three little anecdotes lie fundamental, almost biological, changes in human communication (and so in human society). And it just happened, didn’t it? As these technologies became available, we just started making video calls and sending emails and forming Facebook echo chambers and texting our WhatsApp groups, with people all over the world, many of whom we don't know.
The nature of human communication — that which makes us an animal unlike any other species — is now at a remarkable juncture. The revolution that started with the telegraph (the first innovation that allowed for communication faster than the velocity of animal power) has accelerated to the point where human society is being radically transformed.
This essay is not about a Brave New World in the utopian sense. It is not about efficiency and productivity growth (and that is not the case anyway as can be seen here: http://www.nber.org/digest/dec00/w7833.html). It is not about the current hand-wringing about the “amplification through social media of everything”. And while I write often here about business matters, this is not about “what this means for the future of venture capital/technology”.
This essay is my first attempt at finding better ways to describe this transformation, and a reflection on what is happening and could happen.
It is the case that we do not possess a lexicon, we don’t have the words, for the changes in human communication. The phrase “paradigm shift” is totally inadequate. I begin by introducing a word that I have found useful in getting my head around the world we now live in.
Fifty years ago this year, in 1966, Foucault published The Order of Things, in which he introduced the concept of an “episteme”. In his definition, an episteme is a term for the entirety of the visible and invisible assumptions about the structure of knowledge at a given time in human society. What is truth (or truthiness)? Certain statements or lexical elements may seem to be objective facts, independent of time period and cultural biases; but even the recognition of what is a relevant fact and how to express it is a function of a vast web of interconnected assumptions, most of which are hidden from view.
A startling visual example can be found in art (The Order of Things begins with an essay on a work by Velazquez). Consider the unquestionable changes in the very structure of European art when we go from Michelangelo to Monet to Matisse. These are not just “different styles of painting” that can be explained as inevitable historical evolutions (although they are often explained thus); these are different world-views, different understandings of what is art, who is an artist, and how we define a patron or viewer.
These differences can be extended to every realm of human endeavor. You can think of an infinity of examples, such as in biology the transition from the taxonomic approach of a Linnaeus to the molecular shenanigans of the present day.
We tend to make lazy assumptions about things like this — ah, it’s just an evolution in a given subject — but the fact is that these transitions are so astounding that “evolution” or “world view” are not adequate terms. Hence Foucault’s all-encompassing term. What I want to do here is (mis)appropriate the word “episteme” and use it in an entirely different context, namely that of human communication.
Let’s be clear that I am doing Foucault a monumental injustice with this bastardized summary. He needs to be read in full and furthermore placed in the context of European philosophical thought starting with Kant (which I have not done and am not likely to do — I find most philosophy way above my pay grade and it is a miracle that I absorbed what I did from Foucault). But I know Foucault’s ghost would applaud at this misuse of the word, as he always viewed his work as providing the “tools” for investigation.
The Episteme of Text
For thousands of years, there was just one way for human beings to communicate over physical distance: through writing. Writing took many forms — on stone tablets, on papyrus, on parchment, and in the modern era, paper.
So if you wished to communicate with your buddy down in Sparta whom you fought alongside against the Persians — you had a letter chiseled. If you moved to Rome to plot a career in the Curia and needed to let mom back in Canterbury know that all is well — you wrote a letter on parchment. You’re in Beijing taking the final examinations for the mandarinate and want to tell your revered (and feared) father that things should work out — you wrote a calligraphed letter.
What is rather obvious is that the connectivity that you might have had was limited largely to people you knew and knew reasonably well — or to highly formal communications (as from one potentate to another, such as when the Qianlong emperor responded to George III).
I call this period the episteme of text. The textual episteme lasted from the dawn of human civilization until the 1990s. It is helpful to itemize its key attributes:
- Medium: limited to one medium of communication — namely text. I include here scribbles and drawings (such as maps).
- Time: bound by the time period required to get the physical text from one point to another, which until the 19th century was limited to animal and wind power; and even near the end of this period was limited to the speed of man-made machines such as airplanes
- Confirmation: there was no assurance that the text would be received given the vagaries of transport. A confirmation requires a return text which is subject to the same vagaries. And so on.
- Content: all the limitations associated with the fact that auditory or visual nuances cannot be communicated.
Let’s stop here for a second before we move on to the next episteme. This was the state of affairs for human-to-human communication from the beginning of historical time until about 40 years ago. Forty years ago. Within the lifetimes of most people who are alive today.
The Episteme of Light
So what changed in the early 1990s? Electronic mail became inexpensive and easily accessible to large swathes of mankind.
Email is now such a basic component of daily life, and has become ubiquitous so quickly, that we no longer think about the sheer magic of what we are doing when we use it, or the speed with which it has transformed everything.
There are three aspects to email that allow us to define it as a catalyst for dramatic change: (a) Speed — for it is delivered essentially at the speed of light (300,000 meters/second); (b) Information dense communications that can be archived and searched; and (c) One-to-infinitely-many communications (subject to the restrictions of your email provider!).
Because email was preceded by other forms of speed-of-light communication, its revolutionary nature has been obscured. The revolution started with the invention of the telegraph (using Morse code) in the 1840s; followed by telephony in the 1870s; and finally television in the 1930s. Each had at least one of the three attributes above, but none had all.
I call this period, which began in the early 1990s, the episteme of light or the luminous episteme. Human society entered a fundamentally new and unprecedented mode of communication.
We can characterize the episteme of light using the same attributes I defined for the episteme of text:
- Medium: email started out limited to one form of communication, namely text; but over a very short period of time, it became possible to attach images, audio files and video files.
- Time: Essentially instantaneous when planet-bound. This is the most crucial element, although all of these go together.
- Confirmation: Email is the most “guaranteed” form of communication that has ever existed (until we get to the next episteme, as you will see). Apart from the technical solutions such as “return receipts” which confirm receipt instantly, a response can also be received near-instantly which serves to confirm receipt.
- Content: text-based email messages (so excluding the notion of adding audio or video attachments) suffer from all the same challenges as letters — inadequate communication of nuances being one major element, as all of us know from our own email lives. But as we also know, the instantaneity of email allows for quick corrections to a misunderstood message — and the irrelevance of message length to cost or time of generating the message at least allows for someone to take 10,000 words to explain something if necessary.
Except in about two decades we moved into a less revolutionary but nevertheless very new way of communicating — significant enough that I think of it as a new episteme.
The Episteme of Networks
The phrase “social media” is now used to cover a variety of communication platforms, from WeChat to Facebook. What these share are a few things: (a) The ability to insert audiovisual elements that greatly increase the sensory content of messages; (b) Interfaces that are engaging and have been architected to enhance (and even demand) participation — think of the Facebook approval emojis, for example, which likely stimulate specific areas of your brain when clicked; (c) networked communications involving many-to-many participation in real time; and (d) Ease of use — it’s a tad unfair to give these platforms the credit when much of it has to do with the underlying hardware and software (iOS and Android for mobile devices, graphically appealing browsers and operating systems for personal computers), but it can be plainly seen that you don’t need a PhD to use WhatsApp. This last element is new — technology used to be hard to use and largely inaccessible without specialized training.
These four elements also apply to a variety of other communication platforms that are not usually described as “social media”. In the business world, think of Hipchat and Slack for platforms that are more text-based; or platforms such as Dialpad and Zoom that allow for group video calls.
All of the attributes of the episteme of light still apply — instantaneity being the most fundamental. But these new communication platforms share the four new elements above, and that has taken the email revolution and turned it into something different entirely.
Here are the same four attributes for this new episteme we live in:
- Text: networked communications are far more rich and nuanced than electronic mail.
- Time: Instantaneity is a basic element of networked communications, as was the case for the episteme of light.
- Confirmation: even more so than email, networked communication platforms offer instant feedback as to receipt. We are all familiar with the two blue checkmarks on a WhatsApp message, indicating receipt; or the confirmation that your Facebook post has, in fact been posted; or that your Slack message has been sent and received. Platforms use a variety of visually appealing signifiers to indicate receipt — they know better than we do that this is important.
- Content: video and audio content is central to networked communications — perhaps it’s not “as good as being there”, but it’s pretty damn good and in many ways better (as we all know from having deleted a mistaken (or drunken) Facebook post). We may be at the dawn of this “trend” — augmented and virtual reality interfaces may soon further elevate the richness in our communication.
I call this period, which began in the early 2000s, the episteme of networks. In the space of two decades we have gone through two monumental changes in how humans communicate with one another. No wonder many of us feel that things are moving a little too fast.
What Does It Mean?
In short: for millennia, human communication worked a certain way, but in the space of twenty five years has undergone two transformations: first to ubiquitous inexpensive speed-of-light communication, and second to networked sensorily-dense communication that provides a reasonable facsimile of physical proximity. If you are forty or older you have lived through all three epistemes.
We can get bullet pointed about the changes we can already perceive (each of these categories could command an essay, so this is necessarily abbreviated):
- Loss of control by traditional elites and the formation of new elites. Historically modes of communication have only been accessible to traditional elites; that is no longer the case. Noble birth and military prowess used to dictate who the “haves” are; much less so now. It is also the case that a new technically-literate elite is being formed.
- Dependence on platforms in hidden ways. We don’t think about this much, but our communications are now highly dependent on very complex machinery. If, for example, submarine data cables disappeared tomorrow, our delicate and fragile modern world would fall apart. Who owns the cables? Who can destroy them? Modern communication resides in the “cloud”; who owns the cloud? Who can destroy it?
- Bright lights are being cast upon things that were in shadow. Do you feel that violence in the world is increasing? Well, that happens to be at complete odds with the facts, which suggest that this is the most peaceful time in human history. Doesn’t feel like that, does it? The most obvious reason is that in the networked episteme, information is captured and dispersed instantly to large populations — we now know, know immediately, and know visually.
- An increase in the number of relationships. Until the emergence of the episteme of light, we were severely limited in the number of human relationships we had at any one time. In the networked episteme, we can maintain a far greater number of relationships — for example, children under the age of ten right now will be in intimate visual and textual contact with their childhood friends for the rest of their lives.
- An increase in the retention of relationships over time. This is not quite the same as the point above — number has to do with breadth, but retention has to do with depth. Sticking with children under the age of ten: they will be in intimate contact with their parents and siblings to an extraordinary degree for the rest of their lives. We see it now; college-going youths are in daily contact with their parents. When I was an undergraduate, thirty years ago, there was a monthly phone call and an occasional letter. Now you can text every hour on the hour (or every minute on the minute).
- An increase in the fragmentation of relationships. This is a seeming paradox but is a function of the points above. There’s only so much time in the day — that has not changed. When you have hundreds, maybe thousands, of relationships to maintain — up from a few dozen a hundred years ago — the reality is that most of these relationships will lose depth.
- Immediacy and amplification of information. This is often talked about today — the effect of social media (usually in a sneering tone). And it’s factually correct: where a hundred years ago a brutal crime in a small town might get a mention in a local newspaper read by a few hundred people, today that crime is captured on video and shared around the world in seconds with thousands if not more.
- The ability to quickly find like minded people. The corollary is the increased likelihood of staying in those groups, potentially for a lifetime. Which means prejudices and biases can become entrenched, and it becomes much harder to change minds.
- A divide between those who embrace and those who reject the new episteme. This is not a comment on what is better or what makes people happy. But those who reject the network will live outside it and more importantly will not understand it. They are fully entitled to that viewpoint, but they should also understand that they are stepping outside the mainstream of human communication.
- Fragmentation of the day into increasingly small time slices. With multiple instantaneous modes of communication, and a hugely increased number of relationships, people will find the day filled with needing to respond at short notice. It is likely that our brains are getting rewired to get a biochemical kick from this. Finding a two or three hour time slot in which you can attend to a specific thing will be rare.
- Extraordinary retention of communications. There are small children who will grow up in possession of nearly every single communication throughout their lifetimes — they have email addresses, phone numbers and social media accounts before the age of ten. If nothing else, this will be a boon to the historians of the future.
- Visual and auditory retention to an unprecedented degree thanks to phone cameras. This is specific to the networked episteme, in which audiovisual communication is a foundational element.
- Older humans will entrench themselves in familiar forms of identity. For those of us who have lived through multiple epistemes, even if we have embraced the changes, there will be a search for familiarity. If your identity is rooted in being American or English or Punjabi — it will become even more so, no matter where you live and how you live. We can see some signs of this in the growing nationalism around this world, and as we see ancient hatreds re-emerge.
- The young will be much, much more fluid. A logical corollary of the incredible fragmentation of relationships will be the fragmentation of identity. A child growing up now may simultaneously strongly identify with dozens of identity categories, some of which might be directly contradictory with others.
- Intergenerational divides will be dramatically heightened. This relates to the first point above. People who have embraced the new episteme to different degrees aren’t just thinking differently; they are in some ways living in different human societies.
The World is Ending: Surviving and Thriving
All cultures view themselves as exceptional — “this is a time and place like no other”. Well, this really, truly, is a time like no other, and it is so for all places. We are living through a fundamental, seminal, extraordinary change in the structure of human communication. This is a new world, and we need to think more deliberately about how we engage with it.
But first some observations that are independent of the networked or luminous epistemes, or at least as independent as things like this can be:
- World population will begin shrinking in our lifetimes and the rate of shrinkage will dramatically accelerate. Lost in all the complaints about illegal immigration in the US is the fact that without immigration the US would be Japan — an aging, dying population with terminal problems. India, which in the popular imagination conjures up the idea of a constantly multiplying army of billions — half the population of India is in provinces that now have total fertility rates below replacement. Our children will live in a smaller world.
- There is another, deeper, sense in which we are dealing with a smaller world, which is that we are reaching the limits of knowledge. Almost all of physics is known; all of chemistry is known; biology has some frontiers left, perhaps; the entirety of world geography is known and accessible at high resolution to small children in faraway lands with Google Earth; mathematics is now at the extreme end of esoteric; and art and culture seem to be approaching a kind of stasis. There are very few wide open blank spaces on any sort of map.
- We will live in low growth economies: http://nyti.ms/2bacSyQ. Levels of violence will continue to fall. Voluntary international migration will plummet.
I do not view any of these items as “negative” (and one can debate the veracity of my observations). This happens to be (mostly) the structure of our world. My thesis is that in a world in which much is known, our electronic lives will be as important as our physical lives in terms of the human community we belong to and engage with. We therefore need to reflect on how we want to engage with the virtual world.
As I see it, there are three modes of interaction, each of which result in a different kind of life.
- Resistance: it is quite possible to ignore much of this transition. We all have good friends who stay off social media; don’t appear to respond much to email; and send monosyllabic responses to text messages. Their lives go on just fine (and as I said earlier, this essay is not making a value judgment about what leads to greater happiness). But there is a danger that those who resist are marooned Crusoe-like on an island of their own making.
- Acquiescence: this is a grumbling acknowledgement that all this new-fangled stuff (“that social media”) is now the state of the world. This is neither here nor there; you are neither sitting on a mountain top and claiming a certain purity of resistance, nor are you truly participating in the new episteme. You’re in a gray zone, a bit like the undead.
- Adoption: my current position is that to survive and thrive as a human being in this new episteme, you may need to consider aggressively embracing these new ways of interacting. Not for your career, not for your education, and not even for “happiness” -- although it may be that these are all consequences -- but to more fully participate in human society.
I am here formulating my own way of describing what is unfolding, and how to deal with it — for myself and those around me. I will update this essay or do followup posts as my thoughts develop further. I welcome your thoughts and ideas in the comments section below.