Magazine

Coming on the Net: People Power


By Robert D. Hof

SMART MOBS

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 all.

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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