Let Them Eat Message Units

Will wireless telephony spell freedom, or a new tyranny?

book cover, smart mobs
SMART MOBS: The Next Social Revolution: Howard Rheingold: Perseus, Cambridge, Mass., 2002 288 pp., $26 ISBN: 0-7382-0608-3

In January 2001, peaceful demonstrators overthrew Philippine president Joseph Estrada, organizing and communicating among themselves via text messaging on cellphones. Political protest is a tricky thing—if enough people do it, it can be successful; if too few people do it, they can not only fail, but get themselves into quite a bit of trouble. According to technology observer and author Howard Rheingold, mobile communication gave the demonstrators a way to assemble the critical mass needed for success. He calls such group actors "smart mobs," and it's enough of a paradigm of a new, important phenomenon that that's also the name of his new book.

In a word, Smart Mobs is about the intersection of mobile computing and collective behavior—and not just organized ones, like the Philippine demonstrations. For example, if, as Rheingold predicts, every location in the physical world comes to have a Web page that has user recommendations and ratings, much like books do at Amazon.com, and one's GPS-aware PDA knows where one is at all times, a handful of bad reviews might steer you—and everyone else—away from the restaurant you're standing in front of. The killer apps, Rheingold says, "won't be hardware devices or software programs but social practices."

The inspiration for Smart Mobs came to Rheingold when, in the spring of 2000, he "began to notice people on the streets of Tokyo staring at their mobile phones instead of talking to them." As he tells it, his futurist senses tingled as they had only twice before. And indeed, Rheingold was ahead of the curve when he wrote about the revolutionary significance of PCs in 1985 (with the Macintosh newly born, before the release of Windows 1.0), and again in 1994, writing about virtual communities, the heart and soul of the Internet, just as the graphical Web was being born.

He also tends to become a booster for the technologies and trends his books are about: the technologies interest him because they promise to change the world for the better. Where description ends and promotion begins is another matter. It's easy to be less optimistic than Rheingold about the prospects of a glorious always-on mobile future if only because no one could be more optimistic than he is.

Rheingold is not noted as a smooth writer, and, some engaging narrative detail in the early chapters notwithstanding, Smart Mobs holds true to form. It's just as well; stylistic panache might interfere with the book's tsunami of technologies, ideas, and facts. Only at the end does he speculate on the question many of his readers will ask right away: whether the changes to come will be more dystopian than utopian.

Some of the social changes he predicts are already manifesting themselves in places like Tokyo. For example, a group of teenagers will get together without any prearrangement, relying on text messaging as they first head to a popular area, and then eventually settle, like birds on a wire, at one particular locale. Rheingold speculates that our very sense of time, or at least timeliness, will change. It's okay to be late, according to these developing mores, because the taboo against it has been replaced by one against not having one's cellphone.

The mobile phone seems a rather lightweight scythe to cut through thickets of habit and custom, but Rheingold sees it more as an interface than an end technology—a "general purpose remote control device." A Nokia engineer wires his home with sensors to remotely control appliances, lighting, and door locks. Another engineer at DoCoMo connects his cell phone to a webcam in his baby's bedroom.

Rheingold does, in the end, acknowledge that la vida locomotora will not be an unequivocally good thing. In addition to the prospect of governments and marketers using information from cellphones and PDAs for Orwellian tracking of purchases and travels, he also discusses in detail a serious practical problem: the establishment of trust and reputation in a wireless world. Such problems are shared by the landlocked Internet as well.

In fact, as the desktop-dominated Internet becomes more and more broadcast-like, telephone-like mobile devices and services are becoming the platforms of choice for pure peer-to-peer social interaction such as text and instant messaging. (The rest of the world is on this bandwagon already; only in the United States do consumers own more PCs than cellphones.)

Possible solutions reveal themselves to Rheingold in features of some of the larger sites on the Internet, such as Amazon.com, with its aggregation of user recommendations and reviews for everything it sells. On the auction site eBay, though sellers can remain pseudonymous, they develop reputations that are too valuable to risk with dishonest transactions. Rheingold therefore talks himself out of any deep-seated dystopianism.

Thus Smart Mobs is the successor of the technological and cultural trends Rheingold wrote about in the 1980s; it is the culminating concatenation of computing and community. We have an extremely strange and interesting future ahead of us.

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