Mob Rule
By Mark Frauenfelder, Fri Sep 27 13:00:00 GMT 2002

An interview with Howard Rheingold, author of Smart Mobs, a book about the next social revolution.


If you want to find out how emerging technologies are going to affect society and individuals, ask Howard Rheingold. A former editor of Whole Earth Review and the founding editor of HotWired, Howard has written a string of astonishingly prescient books about the ways in which technology impacts the way we live. His 1984 book, Tools for Thought, foresaw the personal computer revolution years before most people had even touched a keyboard. In 1991, Virtual Reality introduced the idea of computer-generated worlds to popular culture. In 1993, before the World Wide Web had taken off, Howard wrote The Virtual Community, which looked at the ways in which groups of people interact online.

Howard’s latest feat of high-tech prognostication, Smart Mobs, will be published in October by Perseus Books. I recently called Howard to ask him about his book. Despite the best efforts of his 802.11b network to disconnect our phone call, I managed to learn what smart mobs are and what they mean for both extraterrestrial life searchers and for fishermen off the coast of Africa.

TF: What are smart mobs?


HLR: Smart mobs are groups of people who use mobile communications and pervasive computing to organize collective actions in new ways.

TF: You’ve said that the technology behind smart mobs represents a third wave in communications technology. Can you explain?


HLR: If you look at past 20 years, personal information and communications technologies have triggered waves of change in our lives and in society and the culture. The first one was the personal computer. Three things happened with PCs. The first ones, in the mid-1970s, were literally millions of times less powerful than what we have now. Then the PC spread throughout the population, starting with the engineers and scientists who created the technology, and then spreading to the scholars and enthusiasts, then into the business world, then to mom and pop and artists and writers and people who aren’t ordinarily involved with technology. That was the story I followed in one of my earliest books, Tools for Thought, which was published in 1985 and looked ahead at the year 2000.

It’s interesting to note that the PC was a new technology with powers and capabilities of its own that were the result of combining two other technologies, one being the microprocessor chip and the other being the television. What you have is neither a microchip nor a television but a kind of “mind amplifier.” I think that’s an important principle – that by combining certain powerful technologies – particularly when they amplify human capabilities – you get hybrids that are much more powerful and very different from the components.

The second wave of change was the Internet. By plugging a computer into the telephone network you get something that is neither the computer nor the telephone. You get the Internet, which is a many-to-many medium that caused a tremendous wave of change through the 1990s. And again we see the same thing happen over at least a decade. First the technology itself evolved very rapidly, secondly it diffused from scientists and engineers to the general population, and as it has done so, the way people have used the technology has transformed our lives and institutions. Now, the third wave. In the 1980s the PC was a pretty teeny thing and wasn’t being used by many people, but you could foresee as it grew more powerful and as more people used it how the changes would become more profound. And in the 1990s you could say the same thing about the Internet. With smart mobs we are really in the very earliest days, and I’m extrapolating from what I’ve observed happening worldwide, right now. Once again, it represents a combination of technologies: the mobile communication device, and the Internet. And what we’re getting from this hybrid is not going to be the “Internet on wheels.” It’s not going to be getting stock quotes on your telephone, or surfing the Web on your PDA. It’s going to be something entirely new and different. We’re just beginning to see what that is. Tens of millions of individuals will have computing power in their pockets that all the governments in the world didn’t have 20 years ago. Secondly – and this is very important – they will be linked together so that the aggregation of that computing power and the communications capabilities of the individuals will be multiplied similar to the way the Internet multiplies the capabilities of individuals who were sitting in front of PCs.

TF: What are some of the social phenomena that you see rising from smart mobs?


HLR: I looked at a number of phenomena that I am seeing today. Peer-to-peer sharing, for example, or peer-to-peer sharing of computing power as is done with SETI@home or Distributed.net. These are examples of groups of individuals voluntarily creating something collectively that’s much more powerful than what they could do individually. You see a kind of emergent property here. Napster had 70 million users. Intellectual property issues aside, the important thing about Napster was that people were able to create this kind of commons in which the act of sharing created more value for everyone. By the way in which all those millions of computer users shared their files, the act of finding something that you would find useful automatically made your resources available to others.

And this led me to look at issues that aren’t ordinarily considered technological, which have to do with the nature of cooperation. How is it that humans come together to do things collectively, and how do those enterprises succeed and fail? That is an important aspect of how smart mobs can change the world, because people with these devices linked together instantaneously worldwide will be able to act collectively or not act collectively in new ways. I think that will be the really momentous aspect of this.

TF: What are some other examples of smart mobs in action?


HLR: Probably the most dramatic example was the demonstrations in the Philippines that brought down the administration of former president Estrada, who was being tried for corruption. Everyone was watching the trials on television and when some legislators associated with Estrada shut down the legislative hearings, millions of people organized by sending text messages to assemble in the square in Manila. This was a crowd that mobilized and succeeded in toppling a government. And it was organized with the endless forwarding of millions of text messages.

Another example is the WTO protestors in Seattle, who used cell phones, PDAs, laptops, and the Internet to protest the meeting of the WTO in 1999. Using these, they were able to outsmart the police. When leaders of the seven leading industrial powers met in Canada more recently, they met in a remote area and they blocked out a lot of radio communications in the area in order to thwart protesters.

I want to emphasize is that political use, either for good or for evil, is only one example of many kinds of collective action – most of which we can’t foresee today – which may arise from smart mobs. A non-political example is that pretty poor fisher folk off the coast of Africa and India can get text messages about the market conditions for fish in various ports. So they know whether they want to sail five miles north or 20 miles south to sell they fish they just caught. Suddenly they have access to information technology that only multinational corporations had 10 or 15 years ago.

TF: The word “mobs” implies some kind of collaboration. How will you know who to trust?


HLR: That’s an important question. It brings in the whole area of reputation systems, such as we see on eBay and Slashdot that enable people to rate each other. It’s very crude now, but it will evolve so you’ll be able to know whether to trust people for certain things, like maybe giving someone a ride home, or getting together to buy something collectively, even though you may not know them.

However, not all smart mobs are going to be benevolent. People get together to cooperate for reasons that are not very benevolent, hence the word “mobs,” which has a kind of edgy resonance with “lynch mobs.” I don’t want this to sound too utopian. I believe that there’s potential – as there has been with the PC, the Internet, the alphabet, the printing press – for civilization and individuals to elevate the human condition. But the printing press, the Internet, and the telephone did not change human nature, and people with evil purposes have certainly been able to use those technologies to perform destructive acts more effectively.

TF: Since peer-to-peer communications seems to be a big part of smart mobs, can you comment on the issue of intellectual property?


HLR: Right now, we’re seeing legislative and regulatory battles over intellectual property. I believe Larry Lessig is the person who told me that, essentially, this is a battle over whether people who use emerging technologies will be “users” as we were in the PC and the Internet revolutions, or whether we will be “consumers” as the television era treated people. Will we actively use the technology to create media, as people did with the PC and the Internet? Or will we be passive consumers of content that is sold to us by others, as the television viewers are?

That battle has really begun to emerge, with a lot more heat, if not a lot more public prominence, in recent months, thanks to the EFF and the Creative Commons and the bloggers. However, while we’re beginning to see awareness of this battle among citizens, we’re not really seeing a mass resistance to the attempts of the recording industry and the motion picture industry to dictate what kind of technology we’re going to have in the future and how we’re going to use them. I hope that if nothing else, Smart Mobs helps make people aware of this struggle and what it means to our future and helps us influence it to some degree.

Mark Frauenfelder is a writer and illustrator from Los Angeles.