The Next Revolution: Smart Mobs by Howard Rheingold

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by Richard Koman

“The dead man disposed of, and the crowd being under the necessity of providing some other entertainment for itself, another brighter genius (or perhaps the same) conceived the humour of impeaching casual passers-by, as Old Bailey spies, and wreaking vengeance on them. Chase was given to some scores of inoffensive persons who had never been near the Old Bailey in their lives, in the realisation of this fancy, and they were roughly hustled and maltreated. The transition to the sport of window-breaking, and thence to the plundering of public-houses, was easy and natural. At last, after several hours, when sundry summerhouses had been pulled down, and some area-railings had been torn up, to arm the more belligerent spirits, a rumour got about that the Guards were coming. Before this rumour, the crowd gradually melted away, and perhaps the Guards came, and perhaps they never came, and this was the usual progress of a mob.”

— Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

In my most recent piece, Cory Doctorow described the world he imagines in his book “Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.” It’s a world that uses reputation as currency, a world where you’re always on the Net, and where people can be reduced to bits so they can be downloaded onto disk and poured into clones when their biological bodies give out. The way longtime cyberspace social scientist Howard Rheingold sees it, that world may not be that far off.

In his new book, Rheingold posits that all the pieces of a major convergence are upon us. What do you get when you mix together millions of cell phones; wireless Internet floating in the air in cafes, hotels, and neighborhoods; SMS messaging; real-time blogging; microchips embedded in everything from cars to clothing; millions of computers linked together to share music, disk space, and computing cycles; and users reviewing not only the products they buy but also the people they bought them from and other reviewers of those products? Rheingold calls the result “Smart Mobs”, the title of his latest book.

“The people who make up smart mobs cooperate in ways never before possible because they carry devices that possess both communication and computing capabilities. Their mobile devices connect them with other information devices in the environment as well as with other people’s telephones,” he says.

The result is a third computing revolution, after the PC and the Net, in which individuals once again have the power to put themselves together in collectives of their own choosing. Witness, he says, the way the Seattle WTO protests were organized, and how the anti-Estrada movement in the Philippines was coordinated by cell phone; how web sites were being updated from the streets by Net-connected phone.

Yet, even before we’re aware the revolution is under way, its transformative power is being undermined and appropriated by the “powers that be,” as laws are passed and technologies deployed that make it a crime to use digital content in original, innovative ways. Already a battle has been joined over whether users of new computers (cell phones, PDAs, digital cameras, MP3 players) will become a major creative force or mere consumers, “constrained from innovation and locked into the technology and business models of entrenched interests.”

Rheingold will discuss smart mobs and the implications of this new revolution for technologists at the Emerging Technology Conference in Santa Clara, California, which runs April 22-25. I talked to him by phone recently.

Richard Koman: What are smart mobs?

Howard Rheingold is the author of Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution, which asserts that “Smart mobs emerge when communication and computing technologies amplify human talents for cooperation. The impacts of smart mob technology already appear to be both beneficial and destructive.” Rheingold discusses both the positive and negative aspects of smart mobs in his keynote address at the 2003 O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference, April 22-25 in Santa Clara, California.


Howard Rheingold: What we’re seeing now is a convergence, and we can use some of what we’ve learned from the PC and Internet to forecast what will happen. The Mobile Internet is not going to be the Internet as we’ve known it or the mobile telephone as we’ve known it. Like the PC and the Internet, it will emerge with its own characteristics and its own strengths and weaknesses, which will benefit some and not others. The most important of these is the potential for collective action.

Collective action includes the peer-to-peer collective action we’ve seen with Napster and SETI@home and other projects that combine the bandwidth or disk space or computing power of individual computers via the Internet. I take the web as an example of collective action that the Internet afforded.

Weblogs are emerging as a kind of collective action in the sense of the metablogs that aggregate individual blogs. And Google is an example of reflecting collective action in that the page ranking reflects the individual choices people make when they make links.

Collective action refers not only to online applications but also to instances I cite in the book, such as the peaceful demonstrations in the Philippines that brought down the Estrada government. [And”> The anti-WTO protests in Seattle that were organized and coordinated by mobile communications. Since the book has been published, I’ve noted on the blog that elections in the U.S. and Kenya and Korea have been heavily influenced by the sophisticated use of mobile communications and the Internet. We’re now seeing the antiwar movement worldwide is using those technologies.

And I’ve also noted that not all collective actions are benevolent ones. The Nigerian riots over Miss World … people were summoned to those riots via text messages. It’s similar to where we were with the PC in 1980 and the Internet in 1990. We can get little hints from these examples but they shouldn’t be used to characterize what’s going to happen over the next 10 years because that’s going to happen with many more people and much more powerful technology. The devices that people carry will become more powerful, more people will be using them, they will be linked at higher bandwidth.

Koman: I want to touch, if I can, on your use of the word “action” which suggests political action.

Rheingold: Well, it suggests political action but I would not want to restrict it to that. A market is collective action, science is a collective action. It used to be that you used to have to wait for Aristotle or Newton to come along for science to advance, but the scientific method depends on a large, literate population all using this methodology, which aggregates to a body of knowledge, just as the web is simply individuals putting up web pages with links to others but what this adds up to is the web.

Koman: So there’s something unintentional about all this.

Rheingold: Yes, the word cooperation connotes conscious collusion, but there’s not a lot of conscious collusion in marketplaces; there are buyers and there are sellers and their actions set prices. The web has no conscious collusion in it, but every individual simply puts up their web page and links to others; there’s not a top-down plan.

A lot of collective action has to do with symbolic mediation like money or mediums of exchange or reputation systems, but don’t necessarily have to do with conscious cooperation. Conscious cooperation is included in this and the small social groups who stay in touch using text messages to coordinate their activities, that’s an example of where the collective action is conscious.

Koman: And the unconscious cooperation …

Rheingold: Well, you may not even know who you’re cooperating with.

Koman: You may not even be aware that you are cooperating.

Rheingold: Right, but your action collectively leads to an aggregate …

Koman: We’re more aware of operating within a collective than we were 10 years ago, and yet if I want to make a weblog of my life, I’m not intending to take part in a grand experiment of what happens when a million people blog their lives and link to each other and publish RSS feeds. And yet, something emerges out of the fact that there are so many people simply doing that.

Rheingold: That’s right. Part of smart mobs is to make people more aware of the power of collective action and the consequences of collective action that they may not consciously participate in, but also to inform the creation of collective actions that are more consciously cooperative, that I can’t predict.

Koman: What does it mean that there are so many cell phones in the world?

Rheingold: One thing it means is that people who weren’t in on the PC or the Internet, people who are barefoot in slums in South America or fishermen off the coast of India are participating in this technological revolution. You can get text messages to tell you which port to bring your fish to, or if you’re in a small village in Africa where the spot labor market is requiring a couple of laborers within walking distance today. That moves the economic advantage of having access to information out of the realm of the relatively well-heeled elites of the world, out to a much larger population. And just like literacy, this is going to have emergent effects that are much larger than the effects of making technologies available to only the wealthy and highly educated.

Koman: And what are those emergent effects?

Rheingold: If people can feed their children more easily by being connected, then that’s going to change the nature of the connected world. I also think that it’s inevitably, for better or for worse, going to speed up globalization. That same telephone that can tell you about the labor market in the next village may connect you with people on the other side of the world who share some common interest.

Koman: I had a conversation with a friend who bemoaned the fact that on a recent trip to China, he saw villagers talking on cell phones, villagers that 10 years ago had nothing. I don’t know if this is legitimate or not, but there’s a sense that something’s being destroyed, age-old ways of life are being modernized in strange ways.

Rheingold: I want to be clear — and that’s why I use the word mob — that not every group that coordinates their actions has benevolent ends in mind. Not all of the results of this convergence are going to be good for everyone. In the book, I discuss some of the social consequences. For instance, what is the effect of being always on, and multi-tasking? What does that do to your social life, on the level of your family, your community, and society? I think there are some real questions there. In a lot of the world, it’s no longer rude to be looking at your telephone while you’re talking to someone face to face. We’re talking about a world in which technologies change faster than norms, and the norms are changing according to the technology–not what might be healthier for our family or community.

Koman: What do you make of the disparity between technological advancement and social norms?

Rheingold: There are two things to think about. One is–and this is one of the reasons I wrote the book–to get people thinking about these norms early in this next revolution in ways that we didn’t think about the PC and Internet early on. And that maybe people will be able to influence those norms.

The other one is something we are generally discovering, which is that the pace of change, and I’m talking about even the jet plane and long-distance telephony, have accelerated social change around the world to the point where our institutions can’t keep up and they’re breaking–from families to societies. A lot of conflict in the world has to do with this disjuncture between the rapid pace of change in modernity and the inability of older institutions to change to keep up with the pace. The pace of change if anything is accelerating by the fact of the cell phone revolution and the fact that the Internet is moving onto the mobile telephone.

Koman: Is there a backlash–in terms of people getting sick, overworked, overwhelmed, always at work, always available?

Rheingold: You know, 10 years ago the image of freedom was someone at the beach with their laptop and their cell phone. And now that’s an image of slavery. There’s also a remarkable generational difference worldwide. If you were to ask 15-year-olds if they think it’s better or worse to always be connected, to always be getting SMS messages and instant messages and telephone calls, they’d say, “better, of course.” If you ask somebody 35-50, they’re ambivalent. If you ask somebody 50 or older, they think it’s probably a bad thing. This reveals something much broader about human nature, which is that human nature is malleable and that over generations, the changes for better and worse are somewhat forgotten, and you simply accept the world as it is.

We thought that the Baby Boom generation was influential because they had a shared experience that came up from growing up with television. But TV is a medium that the consumer can’t influence. These kids are growing up with mobile phones that also connect to the Internet and they are used to using these technologies to change the world, to mobilize their social network, to get information they need, to broadcast information that they want to broadcast. It’s empowering for them. Over the next 10 years, as they grow up and enter the workforce, these technologies are going to become much more powerful and I think that we’re going to see a real generational cohort, who will have a shared Zeitgeist that will be shaped by this always-on world. They talked about a generation gap in the ’60s; this may be a greater one.

Koman: Speaking of the ’60s generation, you said television, but to my mind the ’60s was the rock-n-roll generation, with the shared experience of making music and listening to music. All of the social actions at the time had this soundtrack, the same soundtrack. A great example from “Berkeley in the 60s” is an antiwar protest where the whole crowd starts singing “Yellow Submarine.” One of the protest leaders is interviewed on the network news and he babbles something about “our generation is all in this yellow submarine together.” But in the documentary made 30 years later, he says, “I think the real reason was that’s the only song everybody knew.” And there’s this sense of, you know, “our generation,” “our music,” and the “youth revolution.”

Rheingold: Well, yes, that was a shared experience. Now it’s much more fragmented. There are many, many shared experiences. It’s not a mass medium anymore.

Koman: Right, it’s not a be-in so much as a login, I guess.

Rheingold: Yeah. The Beatles were a mass medium, and what was revolutionary then is now a reactionary industry. So participating in pop culture is no longer something new. Making your own culture … now that’s what these tools make possible. The good part of that is that it’s creative and people think for themselves. The downside of it is that it’s socially fragmented.

Where people are creating communications, rather than passively consuming them, that leads to a potential for more people to think for themselves rather than simply consume what they’ve received. Now I’m being careful with my wording here; technology’s not going to create anything, but it enables a lot of people to create things. Those creations are not immune to manipulation, but they can be manipulated by far more people than the mass media–a democratization of manipulation, which isn’t always socially beneficial.

Koman: I remember articles from 10 years ago about how Madison Avenue was scratching its head about how to reach Generation X. “Generation X isn’t buying it in the same way previous generations were reached. Advertisers are trying to figure out the secret formula that’s going to reach these kids.” I wonder if that’s part of what you’re talking about, given that you said younger generations are more accepting of more active technologies.

Rheingold: Well, it’s always dangerous to over generalize, but the more that people think for themselves, the more hope there is for people to be creative and the more hope there is that they will be less easily manipulated by political and commercial interests who use the mass media to influence their thinking.

Koman: From your background as an activist, from where you sat in ’93, I think you saw a lot of radical potential in the Internet.

Rheingold: Well, “democratizing potential.” I think we’ve seen that the powers-that-be have power and the Internet is more easily controlled than we suspected back then. And that the democratizing potential is only going to manifest itself if people use it. And it’s very much in doubt. There are signs of hope and there are certainly reasons to fear that the Internet and the PC as we’ve known them will no longer be the sites for individual enterprise. From digital rights management to trusted computing, the broadcast flag, the Hollings bill, the Berman bill, the move against P2P technologies, the telephone and cable companies wanting to compromise the end-to-end nature of the Internet. We’re seeing a lot of concerted political attacks by vested interests. To say nothing of open spectrum versus the operators who want to keep the way the FCC regulates spectrum. One of the points of the book is the conflict over the future–are we going to be users like the ones who shaped the PC and the Internet, from Bill Gates to Tim Berners-Lee, or are we going to go back to being consumers, as in the days of three television networks and one telephone company?

The other thing we haven’t talked about is reputation systems. That’s what makes collective action possible on a higher scale. I talk about eBay and Slashdot as early indicators. If we had reputation systems that were available from our mobile devices we would be able to act in concert with strangers in ways that we wouldn’t otherwise. And that could have huge potential.

We take for granted that if you breed a rare kind of dog or have a child with an illness or need help configuring your local area network, you can go on the Internet and connect with someone who shares that interest, even though you don’t know them and they live on the other side of the world. That’s kind of a day-to-day accepted reality. Why not think about walking down the street–you’re surrounded by thousands of strangers some of whom you may share a common cause with, but you don’t know who they are and how much to trust them. What if you could identify that?

I’m in the airport for the next three hours. Who here works for my company, comes from my hometown, knows my family? Or I’m about to drive to work. Who on my route needs a ride right now, exactly where I’m going and is guaranteed to be trustworthy? There are all kinds of connections we could make on an ad hoc basis with the people on the street, similar to the way we make connections with people on Internet. But what we lack is a reliable way of identifying those people and certifying whether they’re trustworthy for this kind of transaction.

Koman: What should attendees of the Etech Conference know about smart mobs, and where the Internet is going?

Rheingold: In terms of this conference, I want to encourage the people who are creating the technologies to think more comprehensively about what we know of the social impacts and importance of those technologies, and what the political conflicts are about them. They certainly are aware of a lot of the political issues, but it’s important for people who create technology to know the whole context of collective action. With vested interests winning the battles on the legal, political, and regulatory fronts, it might well come down to this challenge for the people at the Etech Conference: Can you innovate our way out of the traps the big content purveyors–the media monopolists, the recording and motion picture industries–are trying to enclose us in?

Koman: This conference has always had a political aspect, with Larry Lessig hammering the message that the very factors that have allowed us to innovate so much are now under fire, especially from the copyright and patent systems.

Rheingold: Well, Larry is one of the heroes of the book, less for copyright per se than for his notion of the innovation commons. He’s done a great job of educating people about the difference between the commons and collectivism. A lot of libertarian-minded engineers think that the commons sounds vaguely communistic, but in fact we would not have the Internet if it were not for the commons. Treating the Internet as a commons does not preclude individual initiative. A lot of common resources that are created by technologies–such as the Internet, such as spectrum–we ought to look at them and think about which of these are more effectively treated as private property and divided up according to auction or whatever, and which of these are best treated as commons. And that, of course, is the debate about open spectrum and how to regulate the spectrum in light of new wireless technologies, such as software-defined radio, cognitive radio, and ultra-wideband.

Koman: So how does the spectrum debate intersect with smart mobs?

Rheingold: We have large carriers who have paid $150 billion worldwide for 3G licenses for pieces of spectrum for broadband Internet, but people like David Reed and others have offered significant technical demonstrations that we could treat the radio spectrum as we treat the Internet and enable millions of more devices and operators to broadcast on it, and not auction off chunks of spectrum as property. Now, even though the technologies that we’re seeing now make it possible to use the spectrum much more efficiently to benefit many more people and create much more wealth, we have a situation where the vested interests have political influence over legislators and regulators. So the Open Spectrum proposal is proposing the FCC open more spectrum for experimentation by devices that can share spectrum.

Koman: One starts to feel, um, cynical that government is in the business of enriching donor lobbyists rather than promulgating the best possible public policy.

Rheingold: Let’s put it this way. If all of the people who understand these issues speak up we may be able to influence the debate. I don’t think it’s realistic to say that we will influence the debate. However, I think it’s realistic to say that if we don’t speak up, we will not influence the debate. But cynicism is dangerous. All the people who didn’t vote got us, in part, into the situation we’re in today. I guess I still believe the system does have some room for democracy in it. And if we don’t use it, we’ll lose it.

Richard Koman is a freelance writer and editor. He has written for Salon, New Architect, Internet World, and the O’Reilly Network.

Posted in Technology Review.

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