Although I am in Washington, D.C. today, where everyone is abuzz about the spread of the "occupations" movement nationwide, my focus is back home in Silicon Valley, where Apple has just announced the release of the iPhone 4S. Just another high tech gadget to some, the iPhone and the age of connected mobility it represents have undeniably changed socialization, marketing and politics in our time. To understand what is happening today, we need to see how these evolving events are connected.
The same peer-to-peer forces that have revolutionized retailing and business are now coming for our other social and political institutions. When people connect directly to each other without aid of intermediaries, it puts enormous pressure on old-school organizations -- from hidebound retailers and moribund supply chains to labor unions and political parties. And now the government. This is the power of collective action by people in social union. And we can thank the Internet, social media platforms and the propagation of smartphones for this newfound freedom to connect and network at will.
Some have dismissed the relatively small size of the numbers "occupying" Wall Street. That would be a terrible mistake. First, all mass movements begin with a small cadre of frustrated, true believers and grow from there until a "jump point" is reached. When there is sufficient social proof of the sustainability of the movement, participant numbers swell dramatically. By then it's too late to stop the cascade.
And, in an age of P2P politics, the small band of protesters on the ground are connected nationwide to a much larger army of supporters and sympathizers. These are the foot soldiers of a much bigger, more complicated, more powerful network. And it is that unseen, underlying network that we should understand, appreciate and perhaps fear.
As biologists have long known, ants aren't smart, but ant farms are. Same with people. In other words, when people unite and act together, they tend to do so with more intelligence than they do as individuals. This new American Network is the future of politics. It is a post-party form factor that will shape discourse and decision-making for 2012 and beyond. That form factor is a new breed of coalitional/situational politics that allows people to "friend" each other just long enough to get a bill passed or a candidate elected -- or bring an issue to the top of the national agenda. Once the "groupon" objectives have been met, the coalition dissipates and reforms in new combinations and permutations around a new issue. Any politico who fails to understand this emerging dynamic risks being overrun by it.
Bottom line: there is a cultural divide in America coming now into full relief. It is not just economic, although the tough times certainly exacerbate the situation. More, it is about using the new social tools we have developed to remake our society. People no longer need political parties or interest groups or mass media to tell them how to think and what to do at the polls. There's an app for that -- or will soon be. And that is the real message behind the "occupations" sprouting up around the country -- and the real significance to what might otherwise be a mere product launch in Cupertino, Calif.: the people are speaking -- directly to each other.