The Talkative Planet. What is to be done?


To stand shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart – Bruce Springsteen

“No, I don’t claim to know anything about such things, and I’m not laying down the law. But I feel it. I have been visited, or spoken to, ‘Ramer said gravely. ‘Then, I think, the meaning was direct, immediate, and the imperfect translation perceptibly later: but it was audible.”

Every half century or so this title shouts out to a poor messenger somewhere. It is like the grin trying out faces. Robert Hughes wrote about that grin trying out faces and finding fault with all of them. Not one face seemed to suit the grin to perfection. Yet somehow we – humans – able to see the faces, the damage done, still we ask over and over: what is to be done? As if we have any agency.


Let us start with the obvious. In WWII the Germans redecorated large parts of Berlin with wooden structures. They painted a lake or some woods and hoped the Allied pilots would get lost. One evening the British send one plane. That plane dropped one bomb. Made out of wood. That wooden bomb was the perfect response. The plane could have been shot down, the pilot lost, the plot broken. Still they flew. To start with the obvious: there is no more reciprocity in response of this kind. Even in the harshest and toughest wars fought by men, there was humor; not irony, no laughter, no ‘fun’, but humor, some thing of old that honored the process, the fact that living and dying are two sides of one coin, flipped by a hand unseen, yet twirling with a sense of style, of creating meaning out of nothing.

Throughout history humorless periods have been indicators of ontological changes. It is as if all lubricants have been sucked out of the engines that drive societies and everyday life. Every thing lies painfully clear in the light, Nietzsche said. Yes, painfully clear it lies indeed. No form, nor ritual, no ‘let’s pretend at least we are doing fine’, no  ‘style’. In the words of Propp, every possible diversion of action within the morphology of the tale at hand has been tried. The tale itself has run its course. There is no logical or illogical – say ‘fluke’ – possibility of regeneration or innovation. It has branched out to its fullest. Then it starts wondering and above all, it starts to worry. If it is not worrying, it is making plans to leave. And try out a new face, a new tale.


We see the flight of capital, moving away from the middle, public space and inclusive communities. It will never return. The new business models are about leasing everyday services in gated communities or sealed management (aka smart cities), the fastest rising form of building in the USA and in China. Life will get tougher everywhere. The days of the consumer are gone and not paid for.

We see the flight of activism, Tiggun makes the proper and sound analysis, but traces back its own footsteps in the precise trail of those who – through lack of self respect and respect for others (whether people, places or things) have brought us to the very urgency so rightfully addressed. Yet ‘civil war’ is not what can be called for, longed for, or felt being pushed into when for the past twenty years we have been catapulted into a permanent internet – browser – revolution. But, in this Tiggun is right: life will get tougher everywhere. Who will build trenches first?

We see the flight of an intellectual elite in aiming to enhance ‘human’ qualities, or even into escaping from the planet altogether. Recently the interest in going to Mars has been growing and popularized on social networking sites. Walking home from the station in Gent I bumped into Angelo Vermeulen with whom I participated in a workshop in Banff organized by Katherine Moriwaki and Jonah Brucker Cohen on ‘waste’. He was on the phone with his family, very excited about the news he had just received. He will be the Commander for the NASA mission test running the conditions for a Mars flight. I congratulated him wholeheartedly, even though the job I have here – if I have one – is to try and prevent people from going into space before they have learned how to manage their ‘own’ planet first.


For we are not in trouble with our future. Anything can happen for better or for worse.

We are in trouble with our past.

The past is what gets us down every time we can choose a different path.

Faced with the real and tangibly actionable possibility of switching from competition to collaboration as the driving force on Earth we find it very hard to focus on the simplicity of life and human, animal and plant needs. For what do we actually do all day but walk around, eat , visit the bathroom, sleep, talk, laugh, cry, go hungry, not sleep and be depressed, be happy and then yet another day? In  encountering decisive moments the human species refuses – or rather we refuse – to rise to that occasion, to ‘grow up’ and voluntarily discipline and restrain ourselves. No we would rather wait for or beckon a new kind of ‘father figure’ to come and discipline us, put up some fences, impose some measures so we can – as eternal youth – escape from them. And feel ‘free’. For a while.

“ Lastly, Sam’s feelings were thus described in B: If he felt anything in all that ruin of the world, it was perhaps most of all a great joy, to be servant once again, and know his master (added: and surrender to him the leadership). (See Note 1, Mount Doom, p.41)

We would rather go out into space and find our new master there, instead of putting our own planet in some sense of balance, thereby claiming the honorable title of steward, for ourselves. In ‘We’3, Yevgeni Zamyatin’s recount of Onestate that has managed to set strict rules for all but two ‘Personal Hours’ daily, everyone is ‘We’ except for the Benefactor. We read the diary of one of the believers, the builder of the Spaceship Integral who is sought out by the revolutionaries, as they want to use it to shatter the glass walls that is sealing of this ‘smart city’ from its natural surroundings. In a final confrontation the Benefactor explains to him how he has been used:

“But have you ever made the experiment of removing its outer shell to examine what is inside? I shall now show you. Remember the scene: a blue hill, a cross, a crowd. Some or on top, bespattered with blood, nailing the body to the cross; others are below, bespattered with tears, looking on. Does it not strike you that those above are playing the most difficult, the most important role of all? If it weren’t for them, would this magnificent tragedy have ever been mounted?…..Even then, in his savage, shaggy state, he understood: A true algebraic love of mankind will inevitably be inhuman, and the inevitable sign of the truth in its cruelty.” (p.207)

Reading ‘We’, ‘Brave New World’, ‘1984’ in 2012 ((1921) Zamyatin, Yevgeni. We, Penguin Classics, 1993.

) makes it painfully clear how little real agency its authors could envisage in the gray zones between the two outer ends of total control in the hands of a few and full blown mayhem and the kind of shoddy war that Orwell talks to us about in his Homage to Catalonia – human feces, broken stuff, decaying food everywhere – as the default for everyday life and practices. In the end the best arguments always seem to end up in the mouths of the rulers, always pointing to some sense of order or be free and be damned and make your bed in plastic debris and piles of shattered concrete. Even in science fiction , the hardest hurdle is never taken; that of free men and women able to collaborate, share and work together towards building inclusive infrastructures for simple, everyday needs of living beings. It shows the level of violence that was necessary in order to keep up the fiction that ‘competition’ is what drives us as a species, and the inhabitants of the planet as a whole.

Stories of collaboration and sharing have been removed from the real as literary modes, not even science fiction, no: tales of wonder. A miracle! Albert Nolan writes: “the best example of Jesus’ attempts to educate the people to share what they had, was the miracle of the loaves and fishes (Mk 6: 35-44 parr). This incident was interpreted by the early Church and by all the evangelists as a miracle of multiplication- although this is never explicitly said by any of them…The event itself was not a miracle of multiplication; it was a remarkable example of sharing”:

“Jesus was preaching to a large gathering of men in a lonely place. It was time to stop for a while to eat. Some had no doubt brought food, others not. He and his disciples had five loaves and two fish, but they suggest that the people be told to go and ‘buy themselves something to eat’. Jesus says, No, ‘You give them something to eat yourselves.’ They protest but he tells the people to sit down in groups of fifty and taking out the bread and the fish he tells his disciples to ‘share it out’. (p.51) Now either Jesus told the others who had brought food to do the same within their group of fifty or else they, seeing Jesus and his disciples sharing their food, began, of their own accord, to open their food-baskets and to share the contents. The ‘miracle’ was that so many men should suddenly cease to be possessive about their food and begin to share, only to discover that there was more than enough to go round. There were, we are told, twelve baskets of scraps left over. Things do tend to ‘multiply’ when you share them. The first Christian community on Jerusalem made the same discovery when they tried to share their possessions…This then is what selling all your possessions means; giving up the surplus and treating nothing as your own. The result will always be that ‘none of their members was ever in want’ “(Acts 4:34. Jesus before Christianity, The Gospel of Liberation, Darton, Longman and Todd, 1977 p.141


and even the numbers

Even the numbers are in favor of collaboration, not competition, now. Psychologists specialized in the behavior of larger groups of people try to explain the relative ease with which one is able to exert influence over masses by assuming “a causal force which bears on every member of an aggregate, and also for each individual there is a large number of idiosyncratic causes (Stinchcombe, 1968: 67 -68n) He continues:

“Now let us suppose that the idiosyncratic forces that we do not understand are four times as large as the systematic forces that we do understand….As the size of the population increases from 1 to 100, the influence of the unknown individual idiosyncratic behavior decreases from four times as large as the known part to four tenths as large as the known part. As we go to an aggregate of a million, even if we understand only the systematic one-fifth individual behavior as assumed in the table, the part we do not understand of the aggregate behavior decreases to less than 1 percent (0.004).”

This shows how top down power works and why scaling itself has become such an important indicator in such a system of ‘success’. Imagine you want to start a project or ‘do something’ with your friends or neighbors, say 5 people. This means that you have to take into account before you do anything – state a goal, negotiate deliverables, or even a first date on which to meet for a kickoff – that all five people relate to huge idiosyncrasies and generic forces that have to be aligned or overcome before you can even say ‘Hello’. This shows how difficult it is to ‘start something’. It also explains why you are always urged to get ‘bigger’ and why you need to ‘grow’. It is only then and through the process of getting bigger itself that the management tools can operate, lying in waiting for you to ‘discover them’. To be decisive, to make a difference, to set about a course for change is in no need of ‘growth’. What a joy it is to understand this finally. That what you think makes you successful by its very definition enslaves you. Of course this is known to all with a heart and a mind that is heavy on itself, yet somehow it is nice to see it proven with Stinchcombe’s numbers. Finally we can use them against themselves. For a while.

Understanding the nature of these social relations in the above terms show how difficult it is to script moments of fundamental change, as hierarchical systems by the very fact that they are top down can concentrate on managing systematic forces relatively effortlessly. That which they can not predict or control remain lone dissident, strange or abnormal voices, or ‘sudden events’.

With the internet these idiosyncrasies have been able to organize and raise their weight in the ratio, and the internet of things will allow these even further, bringing the sensor network data sets individuals can handle to them on their devices. This acceleration of weak signals into clusters, organized networks and flukes can not be managed anymore by formats that are informed by and that inform systematic forces as the nature of these forces has changed.

The smoothness of TCP/ip, WWW, REST and API’s that the younger generations are growing up in will make anything that is not running as smoothly seem ‘abnormal’. So logically soon the entire workings of the current decision making structures on the planet will be seen as ‘abnormal’ as the force of tales of collaboration itself is claiming more and more bandwidth of the ‘normal’. In Gramscian terms it is a Ceasarist moment as the progressive and conservative forces are still balancing each other out. Helpful in this moment is the language of Carl Schmitt. He speaks of the ‘Wirkliche Feind’ and the ‘Absolute Feind’ (der eigene Frage als Gestalt). It is clear that even though we can list and fight numerous ‘real’ enemies, we can never defeat any of them for a long period, only extremely temporary.

The resources that are invested in these cat and mouse fights will not longer be able to draw on the investments that have backed them for the past five hundred years, ever since the birth of the modern nation state. Large groups of citizens will soon stop paying taxes for several reasons. The first is that all the jails are full, there is no longer any stick. The second is that the transparency and open data movements are showing how badly we have been governed and how un objective decision making systems in our democracies are. Most important however is that the web has facilitated sharing data, information and knowledge.

The Internet of Things will enable sharing of mission critical resources such as energy. People are able to organize glocally; locally while drawing on their networked tribes and resources. We can see this move operating in the fact that most building on the planet now is gated communities. People will withdraw from the current legislation and taxes while staying where they are. This process is inevitable and not bad in itself. The nation state was a vehicle for decision making tied to specific historical circumstances. No such system is build to last. So far we have seen breakdown and mayhem associated with the transition of decision making systems. Maybe this time we can do it differently. The ‘Wirkliche Feind’ then means not reading the sign of the times right. Concretely it means not realizing that you have to define new friend-foe categories and find allies in strange places in order to build a team that can play in a new ontology. After all, without a nation state to back your play all military become militia. And militia fight for and protect those who pay. In that sense the entire field is in danger of becoming simple and plane mafia. And I say this in the full realization that the default for any of the systems that we know and have known on the planet is mafia.

Still we must strive  to disentangle that single, thin but straight line of truth and honesty that has characterized the mental models that build bureaucracies as guardians of the multitude and those who do  not hit, maim, mentally cripple or kill others first and decisively. This process explains the rush for and the building of ‘smart cities’. This is not so much a real attempt at building inclusive services, applications and infrastructure for the existing citizens, as well as a business model that has found the next layer that can guarantee that the investments will be repaid and  a profit can be made. The focus on safety and security is not catering to actual people but to financial stability. Those who think that this attempt at simply recreating the conditions that has made nation states untenable – selling of debt to banks and society in seemingly never ending ways – at a ‘lower’ level, are not taking into account the systemic change in the forces in which, as we have seen above, ‘scaling up or down’ will no longer work. The younger generations will ask for ever more open layers of data and information and will either be prepared to be a lump sum in taxes – but then for an inclusive ‘fair’ system – or for a device.

internet of things and a new ontology

“But suppose you did travel, and did find Fairyland?’ asked Ramer, suddenly. For some time he had been staring at the fire, and had seemed to take little interest in the battle that had been going on about him. Jeremy gaped at him, and humped to his feet. ‘But not by space-ship surely!” he cried. ‘That would be as depressingly vulgar as the other way about: like an awful story I came across once, about some men who used a magic carpet for cheap power to drive a bus.’ (see note 1, p. 170)

In Smile, You’re on In-Store Camera, Erik Baard describes how the web shopping process of following your customer every step of the way, might now become effectively used in an ordinary supermarket: “The algorithm looks for shapes of people and (passes) the same individual off from camera to camera by, for example, looking for a yellow color leaving the left side of one camera view to enter the overlapping right side of the next.” The algorithm is tuned with pressure-sensitive carpets. Neither Identix (formerly Visionics), nor the originator of the pressure-sensitive magic carpet, MIT Media Lab researcher Joe Paradisso, thought of these ways of using their work for tracking consumers: “I was thinking of music. I never thought about this for retail at all,” said Paradisso, who has designed performance spaces where footsteps trigger bass or percussive sounds and torso, head and arm movements elicit higher, “twinkling” notes.” (Smile, You’re on In-Store Camera By Erik Baard,1848,54078,00.html )
Tolkien, or ‘Ramer’ foreshadowed this unromantic use of pressure-sensitive magic carpets by half a century. Every new set of techniques brings forth its own literacy: the deliberate attempt of a technology to disappear as technology, implies that designers produce new products yet hide the process and procedures that gave birth to these products in these first place. This places trust  and accountability at the heart of the system. It can be build as a network of connected neighborhoods, neighborhoods being the unit of action, praxis and thought, not ‘cities’. We can fullfill our total control fantasies by building a global TCP/ip for the real world: sanitation and sewage, water and food, energy and biodiversity, very much like the backbone of the Internet. We will pay for this by raising taxes on applications that people start up on their phones. These will have to run on a global operating system. This operation in itself has been only possible in the realm of space travel and colonization of other planets. It seem timely that in 2012 we should try an apply our best minds and most resources into turning planet Earth itself into a particular kind of spaceship, one in which the infrastructure is shared, open and largely autonomous in allocating resources, parsed only to Climate Change as the main instigator. How these resources are then further used and shared among particular neighborhoods is fully up to the local conditions, aspirations and dreams. We can imagine extreme cold spots where zero connectivity is the default, and should you want to you can move to these places. We can imagine extreme hot spots where big robotic bugs are flying and crawling and hopping on hexapods engaged in playful interaction with other species. We can fulfill our fantasies of total freedom in either full immersion in merging the real, the virtual and the digital and live life as in a giant pin ball machine, or we decide to live in a neighborhood filled with only stuff that can be made with 3D printers. Yet all are immediately affected and give input to this open global backbone and yes may inform you that you can not have that shower today, or at that particular time, but you can tomorrow.

Most important however is to understand that we are already in Fairyland, but we choose to disregard this. All actualizations, that beautiful sunset, a father smiling, a mother laughing, old men and women heatedly debating long after the sun has set under old trees, these are not the stuff that romantic naiveté is made of. It is what you will remember and long for in the moments of your dying. I would say that matters, would you not? Or is there anything that matters more to you, then your time? (Jack Johnson)

new alliances

So what is to be done? Let me be frank. Ever since I realized the life-form changing nature of the actualizations of individuating all objects on earth (ubicomp, pervasive computing, ambient intelligence, internet of things) I realized that the current decision making systems were unable to steer this change. Being Dutch, I went to discuss this with numerous Dutch government officials in the Ministries of Justice, Interior, Education and Culture and the Police. Especially after a meeting with the most important innovation civil servants I gained insight into the way democratic institutions have come to see themselves as the ‘end of the democratic process’, and especially in the discussions with the strategic advisor in the Ministry of Justice, Max Kommer, it became clear that for him the ‘State’ is the only real barrier between some sense of inclusive democratic potential and what in his mind is the utter negative connotation of anarchy. My story was always very simple. No system build on isolating data and relatively closed decision making processes can withstand a combined operations of the sharing and collaborating potential of the internet and the internet of things. I hoped to show that this should not be seen as an ‘attack’ on this system, but as the hyper realization of certain elements of cooperative behavior without which the current democratic welfare state could not have been conceived in the first place. If we worked together we could keep the infrastructure intact (would it not be nice to not smash the bakeries and demand bread in the morning?) and use that as an open soft- and hardware backbone for applications and services, thus matching the best of the old democratic traditions with the new forms of crowd sourcing, funding and building.

This then I see as a decisive moment. It is interesting that this text is my input for two upcoming meetings in Rome. In September 2012 there was Transformational Technologies #4: Implications for an Expanding Threat Environment, and the ISOC meeting in 2013 organized by Francesca Bria and Harry Halpin.

The first is organized by government and intelligence organizations  (GFF, backed by CIA) that are interested in debating the threats that they have found in their scenario’s that are informed by the growing transparency fueled by innovative uses of the internet and the internet of things. This includes 3d printing of prosthesis but also of weapons, DIY bio experiments that may unleash bacterial mayhem as well as inform the making of perma culture meat, and robotics meeting IoT read: Raspberry Pi coupled with Arduino boards powered home made flying camera and pollution sensor equipped drones for under 100 dollars.

The second meeting will have progressive philosophers, critics of the capitalist system, highly skilled coders, let’s say; all activist people at heart. Where the September meeting read threats, the December meeting, on the basis of the same analysis, data, and scenarios, will read: opportunities.

It is my firm belief that a synthesis of both meetings can be made and new alliances can be formed that decide on temporary basis and in mutual agreement on the fact that the Absolute Enemy is something that they both share. This  implies that they can also jointly decide on a number of real enemies. So far the activist community has been extremely cautious and responsible. It has not exploited the crisis that has been caused in the EU by irresponsible elites juggling with new forms of supra national schemes without fall back plans, by setting up simple and swift but highly communicative groups calling out to a broad disenchanted middle class to stop paying taxes. It has used its digital coding power until now in a very responsible and soft powered way. As a mental force of manic energy it has ‘served’ every new plot of ‘creative industries’ in the hope (mostly idle) that its results would be used to change the basics of the system, not just its facades. Activists realize, maybe even before ‘power’ realizes it, that they can no longer be ‘co-opted’ into forms of power as power itself no longer has the monopoly on where the action is, where the best brains are, where the energy is. A lot of them are spending a lot of time in expert meetings, or as part of expert groups only to find out to that the intuitive ways of working that the Internet has facilitated for only 19 years, are as professional, or sometimes even more professional.

Together these specialists of the old and new are able to propose, execute and build new decision making models, starting with Greece, Spain and Italy, taking them out of the current failing loop and bringing hope and real change for   the younger generations that are growing up. In real-time the notions of theory and practice have lost their meaning. We must and will act as if we have agency. As with Varela’s definition of ‘ethical sense’ as ‘Well, you know when you are doing the right thing, no?’,  the very notion of a ‘revolution’ is meaningless in the network that is in itself the most permanent revolution we have witnessed ever. It would be a great gesture if Bradley Manning could be released on bail and tried not within the old framework but be seen as acting already ethically in the one here proposed. This also goes of course for Julian Assange and the others that are currently under investigation in relationship to Wikileaks. I believe it would be possible to negotiate a period of zero hacking activity from all sides.

The alternative, not having that meeting, is quite simple: 500 military zones called smart cities and Mad Max in between. Neither I nor you, would want to live in either of them and raise children there.

Let’s say we have that third meeting, let’s SHARE.


Rob van Kranenburg.


Talkative Planet:  . A term coined by Tolkien long before the father of ubicomp, Mark Weiser, coined the term.   . The Notion Club Papers (part one). The History of the Lord of the Rings, part 4. Christopher Tolkien. J.R.R Tolkien Sauron

Defeated. Harper Collins, 2002, p. 230. In his Notes Christopher Tolkien mentions that his father had written ‘Ramer is ‘Self’, but had crossed that later.