portrait Interview with Howard Rheingold

interviewed by John Hammond

Published in Issue No. 73 ~ June, 2003

In the following interview, John Hammond talks with Howard Rheingold about Smart Mobs, some threats to our access to technology, what technology won’t do for us, why the U.S. is currently behind Asia and Europe in the development and use of some of these technologies, and some of the experiences and people who helped shape his own career and thinking.

JH: How would you define “Smart Mobs,” and what makes this a new and significant phenomenon?

HR: Smart mobs are groups of people who are able to organize and coordinate collective action through their use of Internet technology and mobile communications. Early indicators are from the political arena — the People Power II peaceful demonstrations in the Phillipines organized by text messaging, the use of the web and email and weblogs and mobile telephones to coordinate worldwide antiwar protests, the use of texting and mobile email to influence the outcome of the recent Korean, US, and Kenyan elections, and, more sinister — the summoning of mobs to the Nigerian riots over the Miss World pageant. But collective action is not confined to politics. The Web is collective action. eBay is collective action. With blogging and moblogging, we’re seeing a kind of journalism emerge that is very much a form of collective action.

JH: How would you summarize the idea of the “innovation commons”?

HR: Tim Berners-Lee did not have to get permission from anyone, nor did he have to work for a particular corporation, in order to transform the Internet into the Web. He simply wrote software that conformed with the Web’s protocols and distributed the software to friends. The architects of the Internet realized that future generations would think of ways to use the Net that they, its inventors, never had in mind. So they created the “end to end architecture” that insures that the network itself is “dumb” — it just delivers packets. This means that the smarts are at the ends — the individual innovators. The Internet was treated as a commons. Note that nobody is prevented from becoming an entrepreneur on the back of this common resource — they are only restrained from excluding others.

JH: How can individual creativity, the consumer as producer, be encouraged instead of being drowned out by the more familiar top-down commodification of technology? (Isn’t there an inevitable paradox involved with individual
creativity and the mass consumption of that creativity?)

HR: The technology is in place. Literacy in the techniques of using many-to-many media is now the challenge: How many millions of people will start blogging, learn the norms, participate in online forums (and do it in a productive manner), use websites, blogs, email lists, mobile telephones, texting, desktop and handheld personal computers to create, publish, collaborate, share? First, we have to be free to do so — both the architecture of the medium (the end-to-end principle) and the literacy (how many people know how to use the media, and thus create collective actions like the blogosphere?) I’d say that norms are as important as technical literacy: Remembering to acknowledge and link to sources, for example, in the blogging world, or sticking to civil debates about issues rather than personal attacks in online discussions in the world of virtual
communities, for example, are key to making these media work for people instead of against us.

JH: What are the biggest threats to our access to & consumption of technology, and is there anything we can do to protect that access?

HR: The set of laws (the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, now passed into law, and the pending Hollings Bill and Berman Bill, the Broadcast Flag) and regulations (the FCC allowing even more concentration of media ownership and more ominously, compromise of the end-to-end principle) and technical schemes (“digital rights management” and “trusted computing”) are well-funded and thus-far successful attempts by powerful and wealthy interests who are vested in yesterday’s technologies (motion picture industry, recording industry, media cartels like Disney and AOL-Time-Warner) to enclose the innovation commons. Go to http://www.eff.org to learn about these issues. Educate yourself. Tell your friends. Contribute to EFF. Communicate with Congress.

JH: Historically, our progress in technology and science seems to outstrip our progress in human relations and politics — smarter bombs appear to be controlled by dumber leaders, our weapons drowning out our diplomacy. Is
it possible that smart mob technologies & behavior will buck this trend and actually improve our world — not just provide us with more gadgets?

HR: No. Technologies don’t improve or destroy the world, although the nature of each tool does lend its power to certain ends — penicillin and nuclear weapons, by their nature, are beneficial and destructive. Human agency is important. We need to use the tools at our disposal — and smart mob tools by THEIR nature are good at amplifying collective action — to protect liberties. Getting smarter leaders means mustering the collective will to improve and expand public education, improving the public sphere by adding reasoned debate to the cacaphony of disinfotainment that passes for political discourse, and organizing get-out-the vote campaigns. And dealing with the inevitable corrupting effects of money on governance. These are political issues, and it is dangerous to think that any technology can substitute for human education, organizing, and action.

JH: You mention that smart mob technologies seem to be more successful among youth in Europe and Asia. Why not as successful in the U.S.?

HR: In regard to the smartmob technologies associated with self-organizing websites like WikiPedia and blogging and Wi-Fi and pervasive computing, there’s a lot of advanced action in the US. But in regard to mobile text messaging, it hasn’t caught on in the US to the degree it has in the rest of the world. But it’s happening. Today was the first day I noticed people in significant numbers looking at their phones and PDAs as they walked around downtown San Francisco. The operators failed to remove key obstacles to SMS taking off: lack of interoperability (you couldn’t send a message to your friend who used Sprint if your carrier was Verizon), making the receiver of telephone calls pay for the call (which mean that unlike other parts of the world, where the caller pays) which meant most Americans kept their telephones off until recently. Another factor has been that American operators have provided lower costs for local calling, so there wasn’t sufficient economic incentive to send text messages instead. All of these barriers are falling.

JH: How did your childhood, schooling, and other factors lead you to your interest in technology?

HR: I’ve always believed in coloring outside the line and thinking for myself, and I recognized kindred spirits in the early PC revolutionaries. As a writer, I was enchanted by word processing when I could magically move paragraphs around without retyping the entire page. Believe me, if you had lived through traditional typewriters, you’d think word processing is magic. I was always a library denizen. The Web today — my God! I wouldn’t have believed I would ever have such resources at my fingertips. I am interested in learning, thinking, creating, and communicating, and the PC and the Net have been two of the greatest inventions in history in terms of empowering individuals to do those things.

JH: Who are our most indispensable writers and thinkers for you – either in working on this book or more generally?

HR: Doug Engelbart was really the one who awakened my knowledge of the humanistic potential of technology. Lawrence Lessig and David Reed were really the heroes of the book. But Marc Smith, Elinor Ostrom, Robert Axelrod were all major influences on the book. More generally, Toffler and Mcluhan were early powerful influences. Willis Harman was a mentor. Buckminster Fuller, Langdon Winner, Lewis Mumford, Jacques Ellul. Stewart Brand. Kevin Kelly was a mentor.

JH: Variation on this question: what are the 5 or so most important books in the past 50 years?

HR: Yikes. I can’t think about that. It makes my brain hurt. There are many more than five!

JH: Are science fiction writers the prophets of technology? If so, who are the most prophetic?

HR: Cory Doctorow and Bruce Sterling and Rudy Rucker are pretty excellent. Watch for Ellen Ullman’s first novel.

JH: To what extent is technology a part of your own life?

HR: I live online. I carry a wireless PDA when I leave home. And I spend most of the year barefoot on my lawn. Gardening is essential. I’d give up technology before I gave up the lawn, the fruit tree, the roses.

account_box More About

John Hammond is Director of Public Relations and teaches English at San Antonio College, where he organizes an annual Book Fair. He won the Writers Digest First Place Award for Poetry and has published his poetry in Southern Poetry Review, Journal of Popular Film, Wind, Epos, and elsewhere. He has written personal articles for various publications and published many book reviews for the San Antonio Express-News.