Ben Hammersley

Watch the annual lecture

Listen to a BBC interview with Ben recorded before the annual lecture


Thank you very much, thank you everybody for coming. I know some of you have come an extremely long way and it’s a beautiful day, probably for the first time this year, so I am surprised and I am very honoured that you are here and not outside drinking wine in the sunshine. Maybe we will do that later. I especially would like to thank the British Council and Derry Playhouse and, as you said, TN2020 without whom none of this would be possible.

Some formalities – many people have been tweeting that they are going to be live-tweeting, so there isn’t an official hash-tag, we have made it particularly long to make it really annoying. If you are live tweeting this, God help us, but if you could out #digitalderryculture at the end, then we can collect it and track you down afterwards if you say anything rude.

So then, as it has just been said I have had an extremely eclectic career over the past 10 years or so. I started off as a traditional technology journalist for the Times and for the Guardian and I have moved since then into foreign reporting. My career has really been a reflection of a slow change in the modern culture of the way that we look at the Internet, the way that we look at the modern communications networks that are now spanning the globe.

When I started off in the Times they used to be known as the Internet comma, as in ‘the Internet, the global connected blah blah, has done this thing’ and it was only about three years into my journalistic career that we were allowed to stop having the second clause after the word Internet; it was considered that people knew what the Internet was. This was in about 1999, not long ago, but basically a lifetime ago.

So today I am not going to be talking about shiny things, I am not going to be talking about gadgets, I am not going to be talking about the iPad, God help us. Because even though I am using keynotes and we are going to be doing slides and videos and things, and I apologise for that, it’s not really an academic lecture, but I have an addiction, mostly to fonts. Anyway, I am not going to be talking about technology as such or the Internet or even websites or even social media or anything like that.

What I am going to be talking about is – what the network, what the Internet, what cyberspace is doing to our culture. Because I genuinely believe that we are right now living through a revolution in human thought, as meaningful, in fact even perhaps more meaningful, than the renaissance or the enlightenment, or the industrial revolution.

We are right now at this moment in the middle of something which will define humanity for the next couple of centuries. I mean in a very real sense the people in this room, the people who have elected to be in here and listen to me talking about this rather than being outside and drinking a nice glass of wine in the sunshine, are the people who are going to be pushing this revolution on.

So what I want to talk about today really is what that means and what has changed in the past decade or so.

The theory of exponential weirdness

I think there are some concepts that we need to as a society. Intellectual concepts that you may or may not have heard of, I am going to throw some at you today.

The most important one I think is Moore’s Law.

Moore’s Law, for those of you that don’t know, was invented by a guy called Gordon Moore who was the co-finder of Intel, the people who make the microchips that run in most personal computers. Gordon Moore had a rule of thumb which he came out with in the 60’s, which said more or less every 18 months for a certain price, computing power will double, or conversely the same amount of computing power will halve in price every 18 months, and this is exponential growth for the mathematicians in the room.

Every 18 months since the 60’s computer power has doubled for the price, and Intel and physicists and the chip designers who are into such things predict that Moore’s Law will continue for the foreseeable future. We have a society based on modern communications techniques which itself are based on modern technology which itself is based on Moore’s Law.

The very fundamental driving force behind the thing that is driving society forward is this rule of thumb that says every 18 months computers are going to get twice as good, and twice as good again, and twice as good again. This makes life really tricky to plan.

You have an election coming up, imagine you are elected into assembly or elected in Westminster or you become President of the United States, and you think you are going to be there for say two terms, you are going to be there for eight years. In eight years’ time, if you walk into power with a phone in your pocket effectively a multi-purpose computer, the phone you have in your pocket when you leave will be 32 times as powerful as the one that you have in your pocket when you join.

Or if you keep the same phone, this will be 1/32 of the price. In eight years’ time the iPhone4 which is a miracle device, quite frankly – will be free with Cornflakes, and the equivalent of the iPhone4 in eight years’ time, the iPhone15 or whatever it is, will be so powerful that if you were to pick it up right now would be alien technology and I would be in tears and it would all get totally messy.

That is just a politician’s career.

If you think about a standard career, somebody leaving University today for example, they are going to be in a position of power and responsibility when they are in their early 40’s. So say in 20 years’ time, in 20 years’ time computing power will be 8,000 times what it is today. Moore’s Law says it is going to be and he has been proven true for the past 40 years. 8,000 times the capabilities. Which means that everything that you ever hear about the future, everything when you are listening to a talk like mine, or other people who are being pundits about what is going to happen in the next few years. Whenever you hear something that seems alright but you think, but yeah, we can’t do that, because, like, computers are rubbish – then it’s just a matter of time.

Anything you see a computer doing for now not very well, it will be doing better than you can possibly imagine very, very soon.

This produces the theory of exponential weirdness.

From now on things are going to be really strange, and they are going to get really strange in every part of your life, because everything that we do, at least in the developed world, is increasingly based on the network; our business life, our cultural life, our social lives, our political lives, some people even have spiritual lives are based on a network which itself is subject to these fundamental forces.

And so today I am going to talk about what that means.

The death of distance

The first thing is what does it mean to the concept of the country?

If you go back 2,000 years, 3,000 years before the Internet, if you can imagine, before even the mobile phone, to the Greeks, before the Greeks –  what was it that defined a nation? What was it that defined the people? What was it that defined a culture? What was it that defined who you were as a person?

The answer to that is distance.

You were defined by the fact that you were here, and that lot were over there and because you and your mates were here, you all talked to each other in your language and your culture and your beliefs and all of these things developed because you were all together and you were in a group and that is just what naturally happens. And that lot over there, the same thing happened for them.

With the two cultures, languages, creeds, religions, all those things, developed separately because of the distance between the two of you.

Ideas can’t travel very well if they have to get on a horse and ride for days and days and days, or if they have to invent chips. And so nations were originally built up, cultures were originally built up, as separate things based on geography.

This remains true to a greater and lesser extent today.

We are here, they are over there. We are us, they are French. We know they are the French because they are in France, that is why they are weird, because they are over there. That is how it works, and that is how it worked for a couple of thousands of years. International relations or internal politics, all of the rule books, all of the theory and everything was based on these distances between groups of people.

A couple of hundred years ago it became quite convenient to draw this out on a piece of paper so that everybody knew where everybody stood, quite literally, and so maps were invented.

The maps necessitated drawing lines and shapes and once you have a line and a shape you can then start counting things within those shapes, which means that perfectly naturally and perfectly sensibly over the past couple of thousands of years, the world’s different political systems, no matter what they are, based themselves on groups of people which were gathered together because of borders.

Those borders are now fictional because cultures and creeds and languages and so on are increasingly intermingled and have been for the past 500 years.

People travel, people trade, cultures started to intermix. I am just describing the normal modern world, this is nothing new.

What this means, however, is that our political systems, our economic systems are based on numbers which themselves are based on fictions.

Today was the budget. The budget was based on lots of numbers and those numbers are based on averages within the borders of the UK, which themselves are arbitrary lines. Policies are being made up based on averages of numbers, which themselves are based on fictions.

Now why is this important?

The reason it is important is because it describes the socio-political system as we have it today, based on a historical fact of where cultures and societies grew up. And that itself was restricted by the inability to move, and the fact that to spread ideas and to spread culture you had to look somebody in the eye and talk to them.

This produces an extraordinarily stable system, more or less.

Until 1990.

1990 will be seen, I will posit, as being the first year of this revolution that we are living through. It is also the first year of the great confusion for the vast majority of people in power today.

Networks and hierarchies

If you are a member of the political or social or economic or cultural elites today you are probably in 50’s or 60’s. And that means that in 1990 you were in your 30’s or 40’s and you had pretty much completed your formal intellectual development. You have grown up and lived in a world which was Cold War, bipolar world, goodies versus baddies and pre-Internet. Everybody knew where they were politically, and everybody knew where they were socially.

It was an extraordinarily hierarchical world. Everybody knew their place.

The sort of hierarchies that we grew up with, which were based on the fundamental difficulties that were presented by distance being the major limiting factor to business and culture, have permeated society for thousands of years. You have leaders at the top, deputies and so on, all the way down.

Within families you have the father figure at the top and permeation down. Schools, the church, businesses – a very hierarchical system, positively Freudian in fact. Sigmund here compensating massively by a huge piece of paper, I am not entirely sure what it’s about.

Then comes 1990 and in 1990…in 1989 the Berlin Wall falls. In 1990 the old Warsaw Pact completely disintegrates, the Baltic States become independent, Germany is reunited, we go from a bipolar world, to a monopolar world. Soviet Union falls apart. And on Christmas day 1990 Tim Berners-Lee turns on the first web server.

Instantly everything is broken.

We no longer have a bipolar world, we no longer have a set of hierarchies geo-politically, and we have the turning on of the technology which is destined to go through every single industry that it touches and destroy it.

You have all seen it happen to every industry that you can think of – the travel industry, the music industry, the movie industry, the newspaper industry, art, commerce, whatever. The Internet comes along and it destroys it and rebuilds something in the background.

This is a big deal and the reason that it’s a big deal is because the people who are currently in charge, the people in their 50’s and 60’s who are currently in charge, generally by and large, not necessarily people in this room, but generally by and large have the wrong intellectual framework with which to deal with this new way of working, in the way of working we will be talking about that in a minute.

The people who are in charge today were born at the wrong time, which is why they are freaking out.

What Alvin Toffler in the 70’s called future shock we can now see as being the result of people having the wrong cognitive frameworks. People who are in charge today see everything remaining in hierarchies and yet what we have is a world which is very radically moving towards networks.

You can’t fit a network into a hierarchy which is why when anything with the Internet, anything happens that is strange with the Internet, the tabloid press and the government, the local government and so on, can’t deal with it. And the reason they can’t deal with it is because the Internet is fundamentally different and creates a generation who think in a fundamentally different way – they think in networks rather than hierarchies.

Let me give you some examples.

The first two examples are from the last two weeks.

Meme 1 – Casey Heynes

This first example is an Australian kid called Casey Heynes.

Casey Heynes is now extraordinarily famous online. I guess he is about 15 and lives in Australia, and he is as you will see in a moment, quite overweight and is a victim of bullying.

And usually if you are the victim of bullying, there is a hierarchy to deal with. You know you can go to your teacher or you can go to your parents, there is a process that happens. You have to stay within the chain of command.

He stayed within the chain of command and nothing really happened.

He was being bullied by a group of 12 year old kids. The video I am about to show you is a little bit violent so if you are a little bit squeamish the end of it  - cover your eyes.

That was quite nasty, right? He broke his ankle, shattered it.

Casey Heynes pre-Internet that wouldn’t have gone anywhere. In fact quite frankly nobody would have seen it happen. He probably would have been suspended, it wouldn’t have been videoed in the first place.

In the age of the Internet, however, this video gets out, it gets onto Facebook and all the bullied kids of the world watch this video and think, quite frankly, good.

Within about two days he had 40,000 fans on Facebook and a couple of hundred thousand views on various video sites. Two days after that there was a College Fund that had been set up for Casey Heynes, on the official tribute site of the kid who kicked ass, and a petition to put him up for the Queens Gallantry Medal.

On one Chinese website alone it has had two million views, and Big Brother Casey as he’s named in China, is a bit of a hero. So around the world fan art has happened. Somebody went online, went onto Facebook, found a picture of Casey and started making pictures and uploading them to websites.

This is all done without anybody coordinating it, without anybody making it happen, it’s done without anybody asking permission, it’s done just entirely as a mimetic thing, as a network effect.

Two million views in China alone, Casey Heynes, major hero. Probably will get his college tuition paid for. The little kid [who bullied him], his life is going to be pretty shit for the next couple of years.

Meme 2 – Rebecca Black

Number two, this one is going to be very really offensive, I am really sorry.

Rebecca Black. Those of you in the audience who know who Rebecca Black is, are right now going: ‘oh no’.

Rebecca Black is an American teenager, she is 13, she is quite pretty, as you will see in a minute. Very nice, she has very generous parents. The very generous parents went for a company called Arc Music Factory. Now Arc Music Factory is an amazing company. What you do is you go to them with your daughter or your son, and you say here is my daughter, make them a star, here is a couple of thousand dollars. And what they do is they write a song for you, they record you singing the song and then they make a music video and then they put it out online.

Rebecca Black wrote a song, or had a song written for her, called Friday. Friday was released two Fridays ago, I am going to play you Friday and we will get through as much of it as we can.

[Note: at the lecture Ben stopped the video quite early.]

It doesn’t get better the song, it’s really catchy, it’s horrendously catchy, it’s horrendously bad. The later lyrics talk about the act that it’s Friday, Friday, yesterday was Thursday, tomorrow is Saturday and the day after that will be Sunday, Sunday, ooh but today is Friday, Friday.

It shows a certain level of genius. Anyway, this went out onto the Internet about two weeks ago. Young Rebecca probably had a fantastic couple of days, brilliant birthday present or whatever it was. She made a video, her friends are in it, it’s all very happy, smiley, poppy, yay.

The Internet found it, and when the Internet finds something, the Internet does things with it. She currently has over two million views on YouTube I think and it has just been released as a single in iTunes and is being played on Radio1 and all that sort of stuff, and as of this morning there are at least 70 cover versions online.

Again what we are seeing here is a culture that is growing up around the Internet which is not even international, it’s a culture which doesn’t even see nations, borders don’t matter, it’s all about the ideas.

Rebecca Black could have been anywhere on the planet and could have released that song. Albeit in English – release it anywhere, and people, other people elsewhere on the planet would have released their cover version.

I thoroughly recommend going onto YouTube and looking for the Rebecca Black cover version – there is a couple ukulele ones which are rather good, there is a skiffle one, and the speed metal one is particularly amazing.

Freedom without permission

We have these new forms of culture that are being created and destroyed, and created and destroyed at a speed that makes it basically impossible to keep up with.

In fact it makes it pointless to keep up with.

The Rebecca Black meme, the Casey Heyens meme, all of the other memes that you can think of, the Internet things that you have seen and gone past your screen and come out the other end, all of those things. It’s not so much that they themselves are individually significant.

What is significant is that nobody had to ask permission to do this stuff.

Facebook quite famously is now seven years old and has 750m users. And the thing that makes Mark Zuckerberg and his story so remarkable isn’t that he went from zero to nearly a billion people in seven years, the thing that makes it remarkable is that he didn’t have to ask anybody’s permission to do it.

And that, for the first time ever in the history of humanity, is a truly remarkable thing.

Now, talking about new forms of culture. Everybody in this room undoubtedly has a high definition video camera in their pocket, whether or not you use it and as many of you know the young people of today, like to go to parties and video themselves.

This of course is slightly worrying.

[Note: this video is a spoof. Contains bleeped-out swearing.]

Nobody had to ask permission for that either.

The next battle space

I have been giving you some cultural examples of this new-found expressive freedom because of the British Council. But also because I believe that when you have a situation where the world is increasingly basing its entire life on an expressive media – the political, economic, social, cultural, expression of the developed world is moving onto the Internet – that the next and most interesting battle space is a mimetic one, is the cultural one.

And organisations of the British Council, which previously and in light of military intervention in Libya for example, may seem to be old fashioned and perhaps trivial, are in fact, I would posit, right at the frontline of the next 50 years’ worth of internal relations and political strife.

Moore’s Law, as we talked about before, and the speed of technology and the capabilities that that brings you, the capabilities to allow kids to make up professional music videos for $2,000 or homemade videos like the last one we just saw, which was from the Star Wars Universe. Or technologies which allow videos of kids being bullied and exacting their revenge and starting a whole new movement in Australia to be around the planet in less than 24 hours.

The technology that is enabling this also has a much darker side as well.

Because the distance has gone away and so the thing that defines us as nations and things that defines us as cultures isn’t distance as in we are here and they are over there – it’s interest, it’s belief, it’s cultural allegiance.
And those cultural allegiances can be anything from religion or hard-core politics down to the fact that you and I really like vampire novels and those lot don’t. Or we are Star Wars and they are Star Trek. Or we are Cannon and they are Nikon if they really must be. Or they are PC and we are – I mean why would you even talk to them?

We increasingly find that our allegiance – our social allegiances, our political allegiances – are to people who are likeminded but nowhere near us.

People in this room probably have more in common and more communication with, and more cultural interaction with people who live in, say, London or New York, or Paris or San Francisco than they do with people who live three streets away.

And that is not a thing that has been caused by the Internet certainly, but it is absolutely a thing which is being encouraged at an ever greater rate by the Internet. And what we are starting to see with the rise of supra-national organisations like the EU is that we are no longer members of our countries but we are members of our groups within a wider political framework, and that group being digital people or artists or writers or vampire novelists.

Even hard-core political organisations are very much the same thing.

Over the past couple of months we have seen revolutions happening in North Africa and the Middle East which have been based around the Internet.

I do some consultancy for the Foreign Office and for Downing Street and one of the big questions that was coming out in both Egypt and Libya over the past few weeks was: who is in charge? Who is in charge of the Egyptian Revolution? Surely there is a guy, why can’t we call them up? That is how it is meant to work, right? Even when we were fighting… preparing to fight the Russians, they had a phone, we could call them, there was an address. If we wanted to send them a Christmas card, we could do that. It was all very civilised, we knew who they were.

Egypt – there wasn’t anybody. By definition there wasn’t anybody. And every time they found somebody, you know, the guy from Google who did the Facebook page, or they found somebody else and they said “are you in charge?” and he would go “no, no one is in charge”. And all of the western governments who tried to engage with these revolutions, they found that they couldn’t because because the standard playbook was you send a guy in a suit with a hat with a feather in it and a sword and he walks off the thing and there is a band playing and he goes and meets the leader and he shakes his hand, “we are jolly happy to see you”.

There wasn’t anybody to meet because these revolutions are now network based rather than hierarchical.

Al Qaeda is a particularly good example of this. Al Qaeda doesn’t actually really have a leadership structure, it’s been jerry-rigged into a hierarchy that the organisation really needs… that the other organisations need to understand it.

But actually they are more like mailing list with a weapons budget. They are a Facebook page with guns.

This makes them very difficult to understand if you are the Pentagon, because the Pentagon is by definition massively hierarchical.

Pyramids and sheets

So what I am saying really is that the major problem that we face as we begin this revolution, the stumbling block that we have to prevent us from moving forward with the great things that the Internet is bringing about, is this misunderstanding between people who live their lives network-based and people who live their lives as hierarchies.

The distance between pyramids and sheets. And I would say, and forgive me for the generalisation, but I would say that this is a generational thing. That the people today who are in political and economic and social power grew up and did the majority of their thinking at a time which was very hierarchical and bipolar, and everybody knew their place. And the people who are growing up now in their 20’s, younger, some people in their early 30’s, the digital natives, the entrepreneurs, the digital people – many, most perhaps all of the people in this room – are people who live their lives based on networks and don’t see hierarchies.

You can see this in young people today as they leave university. When I was growing up, when I was 12 or 13 the thing that you aspired to was your management training course at Marks and Spencers or a graduate traineeship at Barclay’s Bank or you go into the army or something and you knew that there was a hierarchy and you would work your way up and at the end you would be given a gold watch and then you would drink port and then you would die. Hopefully not on the same day.

Nowadays school leavers, university leavers they don’t want a career path, they don’t want jobs, they want work and they want interesting problems to solve, but they don’t want hierarchies. They don’t want to join a ladder and rise up, they want to zigzag around. They don’t even see these hierarchies, in fact the hierarchical way of thinking doesn’t occur to them at all.

I was in Brazil a couple of months ago and Brazil is very, very young demographically, and increasingly technologically advanced, specifically in the use of the Internet. And I went for dinner with a guy called George Forbes who is the Brazilian… he is a psychoanalyst and he is on TV a lot, he does sort of cultural stuff on TV and he is very famous in Brazil as being a sort of public intellectual and is also a practical psychoanalyst, he is a Jungian psychoanalyst. And he said:

“Ben, here is the thing – 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago and for 150 years before that, the traditional therapeutical patient would be a 20 year old young man who would go into therapy to discuss his problem with relating to his parents, not being able to fit into this Freudian hierarchy.!

And he said today 99% of his patients are 65 year old guys in therapy because they don’t understand their sons.

He said it is not even that they can’t understand their sons, it’s that they know something is wrong and they can’t understand that they can’t understand their sons.

We are facing a generational gap where the people in charge don’t even know that they don’t know, that they don’t know what is going on. And this leaves us with a problem. This leaves us with a massive problem specifically in Europe. We have a demographic bubble that is travelling through, an ging population of baby boomers who are now in charge, and like I say I can see that there are members of that generation in this room today so it’s not age specific, we are just going for a mind-set here, so don’t lynch me with your rock ‘n roll music and your tales of the 60’s.

We have a problem and the problem is – the people who retain the old way of thinking, the hierarchical way of thinking which has been shown not to work and shown not to be suitable – if we want to prosper in this new age, if we want to prosper in an age where culture can travel around the planet at the speed of the Internet, if we want to prosper in an age where e-commerce and disintermediation and all of those great buzz word that you have known for years and years and years, if we want to prosper in that world then we have to have a ruling class, and a ruling elite, who understand that or get out of the way.

And the problem is that they are not dying fast enough. Modern medicine is a bitch.

Call to arms

So I am going to finish this talk with a call to arms, a challenge.

Organisations like the British Council… their job is to spread education and understanding and cultural knowledge around the world. And we are currently living through a revolution in our culture which is so far reaching, so amazingly powerful, so full of promise for the good of humanity, for the good of each other, for the good of our societies, for the good of our cities – you only have to look at Derry, look at the stuff that the digital guys are doing, the transformation that is coming about into this city and every other city, the transformation in your lives that is brought about by the Internet, even if it is just skyping your grandkids, never mind anything else – if we really want to harness these amazing changes, this great potential, this fantastic tool that we can use for the betterment of humanity then we have to let it run its course.

And for it to run its course, the people who don’t understand it have to get out of the way. And happily for them, but perhaps sadly for us, they are not going to do that through the natural method.
And so the challenge for all of the people in the room who have spent the past few years railing against those people who don’t get it and dammit why won’t they retire, the people who don’t understand the Internet, the challenge for us is that we have to explain what is going on, we can’t complain about it any more.

There used to be a thing a few years ago that we would say that such and such a person just doesn’t get it, you know they don’t get the Internet. Such and such a politician or such and such a CEO or such and such an industry, the music industry just doesn’t get the Internet.

That is true, but now those of us who work in the Internet are now old enough to go and turn to them and explain to them very gently what is going on.

And so my challenge to you in the spirit of the 77th year of the British Council, and the spirit of City of Culture, and the spirit of all of the things that have happened here in Derry, is to take in your mind the fundamental shift in thinking and explain it first to yourself and then to all the people who are standing in your way. Not that here is a new shiny thing, or wouldn’t it be great if we all had iPads, or here is a new thing, we just put an e in front of it, it will make it cool, or here is something we are doing already and if we add computers it will be brilliant – because those arguments don’t work any more.

We have to explain that everything they read in the papers –whether it’s the Egyptian Revolution, or the death of the newspaper, or the music industry, or the changes in the economy, or the fact that over on the other side of town there are these beautiful co-working spaces about the open up and everything that that involves – you have to explain to them that that is the beginnings of a new renaissance in human civilisation and that they should not only, not even get out of the way, but they should join us in making the world a much better place.

Thank you very much.


Total 3 Comments Add your comment

Here, There and Everywhere » Changes, grants, internationalization…

Posted on March 28th, 2011 Report abuse

[...] first piece is posted in the British Council website and it is their annual lecture for 2011 delivered by Ben Hammersley and entitled The Internet of [...]

Leon Tong

Posted on April 2nd, 2011 Report abuse

Very interesting read Ben. Structures are inherent in human society (and not just homo sapiens, but all the great apes, corvids and indeed every social species). Social Identity Theory states that the individual defines himself by the groups he joins. And although the internet has opened up new groups, the old ones are still very much firmly in existence.
So I have a question. Is hierarchy really dissolving because of technology? Or is it merely more covert?


Posted on December 30th, 2011 Report abuse

What a load of utter tosh. It’s quite clear this person has no grasp of technology.
He should try actually reading what Moore’s Law states rather than inventing some hyperbolic nonsense – for those too lazy to click on link it says “Moore’s law describes a long-term trend in the history of computing hardware: the number of transistors that can be placed inexpensively on an integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years.”
Nothing about doubling in POWER or halving cost.
Unfortunately, most politicians don’t have the wherewithal to detect that they are being bullsh*tted as a degree in PPE doesn’t seem to guarantee an ability to think logically or analytically. Decisions are based on emotion/ideology/PR etc. when they should be based on facts.