From: Grant Callaghan (email@example.com)
Date: Sat 09 Nov 2002 - 02:33:07 GMT
By Robert D. Hof
The Next Social Revolution
By Howard Rheingold
Perseus 266pp -- $26
The dot-com bust has left many technology entrepreneurs and investors so
weary and wary that they're actually hiding from new ideas. Big mistake.
Nearly a decade after the Web browser ignited the Internet, it may well be
time to gear up for the next tech revolution. But this time, the spark may
not be another gadget or "killer app" software. Instead, it may well be a
new social movement, contends Howard Rheingold in his new book, Smart Mobs:
The Next Social Revolution.
Rheingold knew something was up when, on a trip to Tokyo in 2000, he
suddenly noticed that more people were staring at their cell phones than
talking into them. What he soon discovered was that these oyayubizoku, or
"thumb tribes" as they're called in Japan, were using their phones to exchange instant messages, forging new kinds of ad-hoc social groups. He also found a Japanese matchmaking service, called Lovegety, that alerts people on their mobile phones if someone with the mate-worthy attributes they've chosen is nearby.
That was just the start. Rheingold soon realized that people had gone way
beyond "receiving stock quotes or email on the train or surfing the Web
while walking down the street." For example, he found that the huge
demonstration in Manila that resulted in President Joseph Estrada's
overthrow last year was largely sparked by cell-phone users who were
forwarding text messages over the Net. He found a Web site, upoc.com, that
lets fans track celebrities by coordinating reports from cell-phone users.
Even al Qaeda's use of wireless and Internet technologies fits the pattern
he was beginning to see.
The collision of computing, always-on communications, and physical mobility,
he says, is producing "smart mobs"--groups of people who can do something
together even if they don't know each other. An astute observer of the
social impact of technology and the author of several books, Rheingold
thinks that, for better or worse, this will build into a wave as big as the
ones caused by the PC and the Internet--especially since phones and other
Net-linked mobile devices will surpass the number of online PCs next year.
Rheingold doesn't yet see a business strategy for the wireless Net, which
has failed so far to live up to the hype. But as Net-connected devices from
sensors to cameras shrink to the point where they can be slapped onto any
object or even woven into clothing, Rheingold thinks something entirely new
will emerge. He predicts people will be accompanied by a digital aura that
will reveal where they are, what they're doing, and what's happening there.
This aura will allow them to form far-flung social groups only hinted at by
the Internet communities Rheingold wrote about in his 1993 book The Virtual
Community. Their actions could change everything from business to politics
to journalism. "Imagine the impact," he writes, "of the Rodney King video
multiplied by the people power of Napster."
Rheingold isn't the first to notice these developments. But his notion of
smart mobs is a provocative distillation, a sort of unified field theory of
current tech thinking. It explains such disparate things as the surprising
endurance of eBay Inc.'s (EBAY ) online marketplace and the phenomenon of
thousands of people sharing their computers' processing power to aid the
search for extraterrestrial life. Indeed, his notion may be a little too
neat in its inclusiveness. One might wonder whether some of the things he
describes, such as the thumb tribes of Tokyo, might prove to be mere fads,
like citizen's band radio.
At times, Rheingold tries a bit too hard to buttress his cogent observations
with academic theories that draw parallels between smart mobs and swarms
such as ant colonies. Here, his questions are more interesting than the few
answers he finds. He wonders, for instance, whether electronically created
swarms of humans--who, unlike ants, possess complex intelligence--will
result in a similar collective intelligence or something entirely different.
He also wonders: "Will nascent smart mobs be neutralized into passive, if
mobile, consumers of another centrally controlled mass medium? Or will an
innovations commons flourish, in which a large number of consumers also have
the power to produce?"
Clearly, Rheingold hopes for the latter--that the power of smart mobs could
be used to create a more democratic power he dubs "ad-hocracy." Perhaps, but
wasn't that what the Internet was supposed to have done already? Instead,
established business interests such as media companies are on the verge of
fencing off the Internet "commons"--virtual space that was once shared by
To his credit, though, Rheingold goes out of his way to point up the
potential dangers, from the rise of techno-terrorism to the erosion of
privacy. He notes that the U.S. military is leading smart-mob-technology
development, planning to test wearable computers with Global Positioning
Systems and wireless communications next year. He fears the encroachment of
commercial interests even more. "Will we be wiser in our choices of how to
use the small screen in our hand than we were with the TV screen in what
used to be the family room?" he asks. "The question is whether we have the
wisdom to use our power-tools without amputating something vital."
Raising such questions is the chief contribution of Smart Mobs. Rheingold
hopes that if we know that smart mobs are coming and what impacts they may
have, we may be able to make the best of them. That's debatable, but at
least this book gives us the chance to try.
Hof is Silicon Valley bureau chief.
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