The Swarm Analogy and the Wireless Revolution
- “If you’re looking for a role model in a world of complexity, you could do worse than to imitate a bee.”
- —Thomas Seely, bee expert
Swarms have existed since the beginning of the Earth among various types of species, from insects, to fish, to birds. More recently, “swarm intelligence” has been applied to everything from airplane gate routing by Southwest Airlines to guerilla marketing with “swarmteams.”1
The Merriam-Webster definition of a swarm is a large number of animate or inanimate things massed together and usually in motion.
If you think of wireless networks as connecting a virtual mass of users and networked objects, allowing them to converge around specific places, ideas, or activities in a semicoordinated fashion, this is, in fact, a swarm. This is a concept beyond the “convergence,” “interconnectedness,” and “pervasiveness” we have seen in information networks. Not only are swarms interconnected and pervasive, they also include a collective behavior and purpose that is not captured in these other concepts. It is this underlying characteristic that also makes it so difficult for organizations to see the early signals of this new paradigm. Figure 1.1 shows a number of wireless technologies and social networking that enable swarms among networked users, much like the coordinated activities of bees around a hive.
Figure 1.1 Wireless technologies and social networking enable swarms among networked users.
Wirelessly enabled swarms have occurred in recent years, such as the throngs of disgruntled citizens in the Philippines who tried to take over government buildings using text messaging to coordinate their movements.2 However, the current wireless networks do not support “swarming” as a natural occurrence due to limitations in interoperability, location awareness, device intelligence, and capacity. The newest fourth generation of wireless technology, or 4G, overcomes these limitations, opening the possibility of swarming as a routine occurrence in both professional and social situations. (The three previous wireless generations will be defined later in this chapter.)
First, let’s try to define 4G wireless, the catalyst for the Digital Swarm, to the best extent possible, given that it is still a fuzzy, evolving collection of technologies and concepts. Several potential 4G standards are emerging, including WiMax and LTE (Long-Term Evolution). However, the commonly accepted goals are that 4G will allow typical users to get over 100 megabits per second (Mbps) to their wireless device anywhere they go. This is more than their home broadband connection and even more than a large office building does today. Users also would have smart devices that can provide the most appropriate services based on their “presence” or specific situation. This would allow 4G users to download HD movies in seconds; engage in virtual-reality business and entertainment applications; and get real-time, rich media related to their unique context and location. Sounds appealing, to say the least!
But 4G is just an enabler. The intersection of this technology platform with other social, economic, political, and technological effects will enable the Digital Swarm.
A Day in the 4G Life
- “Chaos in the world brings uneasiness, but it also allows the opportunity for creativity and growth.”
- —Tom Barrett, author
Close your eyes. Imagine yourself sitting in your home or office with streams of information moving between you and the objects around you. Actions take place in your immediate environment as you orchestrate them from your mobile device. Only relevant information is sent to you as your personal “bot” negotiates and filters massive streams of data on your behalf. Your interactions with other people take the form of abstract transmissions of ideas that you exchange in real time as if they were immediate. Instead of using archaic serial communications, you can interact with several of their virtual profiles in parallel to have several conversations at once. Your device is constantly aware of your condition because your health and emotions are monitored systematically via the personal network that constantly surrounds your body. The distinction between life and work has become blurred across a continuum of time and space where decisions are made, and actions are taken to optimize both performance and personal satisfaction. You can easily immerse yourself into both real and simulated situations via high-definition digital media for both work and play. You have become a biological networked appliance who can link to the global communications grid anytime and anywhere. Like others who can afford the best technology, you have complete awareness and control whenever you need it. This is your new way of life.
Now open your eyes. This may seem like fantasy, but the notion of individuals sensing and controlling their environment without depending on the infrastructure that surrounds us today is not far off. Advances in wireless technology, distributed computing, artificial intelligence, and biotechnology are laying the foundation for a new world and society without wires. As technology drives deeper into the human experience, a new world is beginning to emerge that we need to acknowledge and reconcile with our current assumptions. The idea of individuals self-organizing to act in a way that results in the most efficient and effective outcomes is certainly appealing. But this also raises some fundamental questions about what society would be like under these “swarmlike” conditions. There are even more practical questions about how business will be conducted and how companies will organize in this very distributed world:
- Where will the intersections of technology and social effects create tipping points for new killer applications?
- What will be the price of the information required to enable optimal decisions? Will it be at the expense of privacy or wealth?
- Who will monitor, organize, and control the individuals making the self-directed decisions? And how will the actions of these individuals be governed?
- Will companies become slaves to the actions of those who work there, or will they be able to harness the power of the “intelligent mob” to unlock significant new levels of innovation and performance?
In the movie Spider-Man, Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben tells him, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Will society and individuals be able to harness the power they are given by the Digital Swarm, or will it overwhelm them? In this book, we will journey into the future unwired world and explore some of the scenarios that may unfold, and the implications for individuals, companies, and society as a whole. The images of this new world may also present some deep challenges to our current assumptions and beliefs. We must confront them if we are to succeed and thrive in the future Digital Swarm.