As Joshua Cooper Ramo suggests in his important new book, The Seventh Sense, massively scaled, always-on connection changes the nature of objects and institutions. A heart-rate monitor that shares information with a million other heart-rate monitors functions differently than one that operates in standalone fashion. The same is true for automobiles, spare bedrooms, and the individuals who make up a TV audience or a country. The Networked Age doesn’t just amplify or accelerate existing instances of knowledge transfer, economic exchange, and political action. It enables entirely new possibilities and behaviors.
Still, the extent to which networks are reshaping our lives and most important institutions remains surprisingly underappreciated. The Seventh Sense is Ramo’s deeply considered attempt to address what’s at stake in these early days of the Networked Age, and to envision what paths we might pursue as we move forward.
A former Time magazine senior editor who now serves as co-CEO and vice chairman of Kissinger Associates, he understands that it’s not just code or hardware that defines our age. Instead, it’s networks, the always-shifting set of relationships that the code and hardware enable, the near-omniscience that arises out of perpetual and pervasive feedback loops. Knowledge is power, the old saying goes, and today, thanks to networks, knowledge accrues and disperses and recombines at speeds and in ways that can be liberating and unsettling.
Or as Ramo puts it with poetic succinctness: “Constant connectivity taps like a hammer on the glass of our most comfortable institutions.”
With his background in statecraft, Ramo is far more circumspect about “disruption” or the consequences of “changing the world” than the average Silicon Valley growth hacker. He recognizes that ISIS is as much a product of the Networked Age as Uber or Instagram.
But ultimately Ramo positions that tapping hammer of constant connectivity as a constructive force, one that can make our most vital institutions more productive, more responsive, more resilient. In his estimation, we’re at a turning point as significant as that of the Age of Enlightenment, when the Scientific Revolution ushered us out of the Dark Ages and into a new era increasing trade and prosperity, longer lifespans, and greater individual autonomy.
So how do we steer toward the best possible outcomes in our own moment of major and often chaotic transformation?
The first step is to develop what Ramo dubs the seventh sense – an “ability to look at any object and see the way in which it is changed by connection.”
In the Networked Age, thousands of spare bedrooms becomes the building blocks of a new hospitality marketplace. Drivers seeking route-finding information become sensors who collectively reveal local traffic conditions.
And as I’ve written in the past, when exploring the idea of network literacy, individual and organizational identity changes too. Networks make identity multivariate, distributed, and in part, defined by outside forces. In the Networked Age, you’re never just “you” anymore. You’re who you know and what they know about you; who they know; in what contexts they know you.
The power of connected systems, Ramo notes, derives from “the number, the type, and the speed of the relationships they establish and then use.” That’s true of the individuals and organizations enmeshed within networks as well as the overall networks themselves. Today, individuals and organizations who possess the greatest network literacy will always be the first to learn about and adapt to changing conditions, new threats, and new opportunities. Without a well-developed seventh sense, you falter. With it, you possess the adaptability and resilience that individuals, companies, and even countries need now to prosper in a complex, fast-changing world.
Ramo isn’t just interested in diagnosing how network power works. The ultimate goal of The Seventh Sense is to plot a path forward, to suggest how we can best utilize all the new connected systems where so much of our lives play out now – especially as these systems become even more essential to trade, finance, education, health, and overall economic and national security. Ramo views the challenge through the lens of a statesman: His counsel arises from a desire to ensure that this next generation of networks are informed by “American values of democratic choice, freedom of thought, and privacy.”
Ramo’s vision rests on a strategic approach toward network development that he calls “Hard Gatekeeping.” America’s networks, he suggests, must be developed and controlled with more emphasis on security. And while Ramo strategizes at a high level, it’s clear he means the United States government should take a more proactive role in developing and controlling what he calls “gatelands,” the networks where we will conduct much of our lives.
“Completely open technology standards can be hijacked too easily,” he writes. Thus, he envisions a world in which America no longer permits “any nation to plug into the country’s markets or technologies or educations systems.”
Presumably, stronger forms of identity will be one feature of this new system. Another that Ramo suggests is a national “BitDollar” – i.e. a digital currency backed by the U.S.
Greater transparency and trust would potentially make these new gatelands more desirable venues for trade and finance, and thus they’d also function as powerful tools of diplomacy. Other countries that wanted to plug into America’s systems would have to play by America’s rules. Ramo offers an example: If a nation wanted access to America’s trading platforms or cybersecurity databases, it would have to forgo any nuclear research.
Other countries, Ramo notes, would have gatelands of their own. And he emphasizes that America should not “force anyone else into its gated systems.” Another possibility, of course, is that networks characterized by an even greater degree of openness than today’s will emerge as a hedge against the reduced opportunities for anonymity, pseudonymity, and unregulated behavior in the gatelands that Ramo envisions.
But if Ramo presents tomorrow’s gatelands as an opt-in phenomenon that users choose voluntarily because they offers more security and better overall experiences, he also recognizes that any gatelands that achieve critical mass will exert an increasingly significant cost on anyone who opts out. That is precisely what gives them their leverage, both internationally and domestically. “Many future gatelands will express their power as much by cutting nations or people out as by counting them in,” he concludes. “Imagine if you were not allowed to transact in the new Bitdollars.”
The Internet and the networks it has enabled grew as fast as they did, and are as popular as they are, because they’ve largely been characterized by both permissionless innovation and permissionless use.
Peter Thiel, Max Levchin, and other members of the PayPal team, including myself, didn’t need to obtain any web-specific licenses when we starting offering online money transfer services in 1999. Satoshi Nakamato launched a new currency into the world without any government’s prior approval. And while the regulatory status of trailblazing startups like Uber and Airbnb continues to evolve, they were able to introduce services that created massive value for both consumers and individuals seeking new sources of income, without having to obtain prior approval from any network gatekeepers.
But while it’s hard to imagine that the web would have grown as fast as it did in the 1990s as a result of its fundamentally open nature, it’s also true that many of today’s most popular networks and platforms require user registration and other even more exacting forms of identification. So at this point it may be that users and entrepreneurs would flock to the more secure and transparent networks that would exist in the gatelands that Ramo envisions.
Ultimately, what The Seventh Sense makes so clear is that in 2016, 25 years after the birth of the World Wide Web, we’re still in the formative stages of the Networked Age. And what makes the book so useful is the way that Ramo homes in on the crucial question of our age: How do we want the networks and platforms that grow more and more essential to our lives to evolve?
Ramo describes the power of networks with a statesman’s feel for history and sense of the moment, and that’s precisely what we need right now. Networks are reshaping the world, and the questions and debates about who gets to control them and how we should design them for maximum benefit to all are only just beginning. To participate most productively in this moment, you need the Seventh Sense – both the book itself and the understanding and facility for the Networked Age it will help you develop.