We know how dramatically technology has changed our lives in the past few decades, from the advent of the PC, the graphical user interface, and desktop publishing to the Internet, email, and cell phone. Howard Rheingold has documented the implications of much of this history in Tools for Thought (1985), The Virtual Community (1993), a term he coined, and now in his new book Smart Mobs. This is a report from the front lines: conversations in the research labs and offices of people developing the latest innovative devices, street-level examples of their impact on the way we live, and broader perspectives on some of the larger social-political issues at stake.
Rheingold is a scout and a visionary who knows “how to recognize the future when it lands on you,” looking for new behavior, opportunities, and problems that come from emerging technologies. His antennae are more finely tuned than most, so part of the fun is catching the excitement of the hunt. Here is what he calls his Shibuya epiphany that led to this book:
“The first signs of the next shift began to reveal themselves to me on a spring afternoon in the year 2000. That was when I began to notice people on the streets of Tokyo staring at their mobile phones instead of talking to them, [a sight that triggered] the instant recognition that a technology is going to change my life in ways I can scarcely imagine.”
Young people in Tokyo, and their counterparts in Helsinki, Stockholm and Manila, were using their cell phones to send and receive short text messages, called “texting,” to their networks of friends. Staying in touch with peer networks is essentially different from person-to-person phone conversations and is part of a new techno-social phenomenon Rheingold has coined the “smart mob.”
The Tokyo youth have also been called “thumb tribes” for their ability to send these messages by using only their thumbs, often without looking. Rheingold’s research showed that they found wireless texting a convenient way to circumvent parental monitoring of the traditional wired phone and Internet. He uses the term “swarming” to describe “the cybernegotiated public flocking behavior of texting adolescents.”
This technology was used by the World Trade Organization protesters in Seattle in 1999 and proved to be an efficient way to organize large groups of people and almost instantaneously deploy them from one location to another as needed, staying ahead of the tear gas. Similar tactics were used to depose the government of President Joseph Estrada of the Philippines in 2001: “Tens of thousands of Filipinos converged on Epifanio de los Santas Avenue, known as “Edsa,” within an hour of the first text message volleys: ‘Go 2EDSA, Wear blck.’ Over four days, more than a million citizens showed up, mostly dressed in black. Estrada fell. The legend of “Generation Txt” was born.”
Group behavior enabled by technology and based on a common good or need is the underlying theme of most of the smart mob technologies Rheingold addresses, such as participation in eBay, whose reputation system enforces good behavior and trust that are crucial to commerce among strangers. Another smart mob example is SETI@home, an enterprise that lets people’s computers throughout the world “band together” when they would normally be idle to crunch radio astronomy data in a Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI).
Some of the technologies Rheingold discusses are more about people interacting with things, boding sometimes Orwellian implications such as “attentive billboards” with sensors that can detect where people are looking, determine their age, sex, and other characteristics, then adjust the message to suit the viewer. You may recall a scene from Steven Speilberg’s movie Minority Report when Tom Cruise enters a department store and the mannequins call him by name and suggest products to purchase.
Humans can also interact with their environment with wearable computers that, for example, could allow you to purchase gasoline by waving your arm at the pump, or with embedded chips that enable signs to give you directions or vending machines to respond to your cell phone like a remote control.
In this gee-whizz world of possibilities, Rheingold is not just a cheerleader for the New. He cautions that the mere existence of new technologies will not make us a better people; “Humans did not stop committing atrocities when print literacy made science and democratic nation-states possible.” He cites social scientists whose research shows technology has changed our perception of time, that we feel constantly busy yet feel compelled to maintain constant activity, at the cost of reflection, observation, or the unexpected adventure.
On the political-business front, he warns of the familiar dark sides of otherwise liberating technologies, such as the potential loss of privacy, the manipulation of information he calls “disinfotainment,” and the consequences of fewer corporations owning more of our TV, radio, phone, cell, and wireless media, as it is de-regulated and sold to the highest bidder. Instead, Rheingold hopes we will foster cooperative uses of technology, encourage productive smart mob opportunities, and build an “innovation commons” in which consumers are also producers, one condition that made the Internet possible.
This is “must” reading for anyone curious about how our fluid technology is changing the way we live, morphing us into new ways of relating to each other, new social-political possibilities. Even if you can’t step twice (or even once) into the same river, to paraphrase an ancient Greek philosopher, at least you can read Howard Rheingold’s Smart Mobs to get your feet wet and gain an intelligent and entertaining measure of the current.