Broadband on the run
Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution, by Howard Rheingold. Cambridge, Mass.: Perseus Books, 2002, 266 pages.
“Smart mobs” is veteran tech-watcher Howard Rheingold’s term for the growing ranks of people linked to each other through the mobile Internet. In the millions worldwide today, mobile devices could start outnumbering personal computers connected to the Net as soon as a year from now. When that happens, says Rheingold, paging or phoning and “texting” won’t simply be easier; almost unconstrained by location, the combination will also unlock new possibilities for socializing, doing business, and political networking.
This revolution is sneaking up on Americans, Rheingold contends, partly because we’re not leading it. For cultural reasons he spells out and business reasons he rues–mainly competing standards, “clueless marketing,” and a pricing model that thwarts those willing to try new technology–the future of the mobile Net arrived in Japan, Scandinavia, and elsewhere while the United States was thinking about putting on its shoes.
Plenty of American teenagers have mobile phones and can send text, but in Tokyo 90 percent do. They use the aptly named “i-mode” at all hours to share their thoughts and feelings silently in real time, track their friends’ whereabouts, and to decide while on the run where to congregate next. Going further, hundreds of thousands of dating-age Japanese have subscribed to a service, Lovegety, that lets them know when another subscriber with the right stuff is within 15 feet of their texting phone.
Helsinki is also fast going wireless. There, many parents use the buzzword “swarming” to describe “the cyber-negotiated public flocking behavior of texting adolescents.” There too, experimental location-sensing devices in mobile Net phones hook users through sensors, beacons, and computers into a “digital city” of geo-information systems that tell people where they are, what that spot has to offer, and how to get where they want to go.
Rheingold’s world tech tour includes stops in Stockholm, U.S. Indian reservations, Manila, and other places where mobile Net devices have already been deployed. Some of the concepts and technologies explored in Smart Mobs, such as “smart rooms” that sense and answer inhabitants’ needs or the “digital cities” described above, seem likely to become everyday realities once production or installation costs come down. Others, especially wearable computers that extend human sensory powers or “attentive billboards” that gather demographic information on onlookers and then adjust the message accordingly, seem further off. Rheingold distinguishes between the near at hand and the far from feasible. But occasionally he succumbs to the gee-whizness of it all, and he doesn’t always clearly connect the technologies he describes to his governing idea that wireless web interactions are on balance a positive-sum game.
Still, Smart Mobs is more than a technological travelogue. The book also contains searching interviews with dozens of cyber-visionaries and inventors (many of whom are American) and the author’s own reading of philosophers and social critics who speak to his questions about new technology’s potential to excite cooperation and to function effectively without heavy-handed government regulation, as well as about its dark side. In making his case for a light touch, Rheingold he takes a blanket approach to technology change and choice, turning to Robert Wright’s 2002 book, Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, the work of Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessing, and such intellectual titans as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Lewis Mumford, Mancur Olson, Joseph Schumpeter, and Jaques Ellul for insights and applying them broadly to mobile computing’s social and antisocial sides. For example, he turns to game theory to illustrate how the interactive nature of the wireless Net will lead to the development of “reputation systems” that will prevent the excesses of self interest. Rheingold argues that the fact that participants are likely to interact repeatedly on the Net will result in peer-pressured self-regulation among virtual communities that will ensure quality control and responsible behavior.
In Rheingold’s view, “peer to peer ad-hocracies” formed by users of smart-mob devices are uniquely able to “combine the powers of computation with the growth capabilities of online social networks.” This potential is rooted in the early development of the Internet, which this and other authors have painted as largely unscripted, altruistic, and anonymous. In “P2P” lingo, every client is also a server: All use the Net but also give back to it by sharing information. In Rheingold’s crystal ball, Wireless P2P tech, the next phase of the communications revolution, could make journalists, political activists, consumer advocates, forecasters, and researchers (not to mention restaurant and movie critics) of all who use it, thus creating new forms of public confidence and trust.
Rheingold worries that his idealistic vision and the Internet ethos could be derailed by growing threats to American liberties–threats to privacy and freedom as marketers further invade people’s lives and electronic surveillance increases, to sanity and civility as convenience trumps community, and to human dignity as machines take over more life functions. More tractable evils (that actually receive more attention) are security breaches, radiation emitted by some smart mob technologies, and interference, as well as cultural debasement as editing all but disappears.
As we ponder the first set of problems and attack the second, says the author, overcoming technological and regulatory barriers needs to be a priority. Rheingold fears that the media conglomerates that have licensed the broadcast spectrum will want to protect their investment and preserve the centrally controlled model of information dissemination in which they produce and the rest of us pay. This will mean a continuation of the complex government regulatory apparatus, which is designed to protect consumers from corporate power but which also slows innovation. Treating the broadcast spectrum as a public good or commons, an article of faith among broadbanders, would, he says, pare the need for government regulation, maximize the resource, and spark innovation. The choice soon upon us, as he sees it, is between centralized control by a few or decentralized coordination by the many.
Meaningful choice has to be informed, of course, and Rheingold says we choosers have work to do. Lest mobile Netsters become passive consumers instead of true empowered networkers with their creative juices flowing, more practical knowledge on four issues is essential. We need to know more about how to regulate the mobile Net to promote innovation and competition democratically, how natural and artificial interdisciplinary systems of cooperation work, what all-pervasive 24/7 media do to our brains and coexistence with others, and how ubiquitous computing might reshape cities. Although Rheingold doesn’t pretend to have more than tentative answers, these are questions that policymakers and smart mobs alike need answered.
Equally enthralled by techno-visions, today’s “killer aps,” and the social effects of both, Rheingold creates a sound, if still sketchy, framework for steering and assessing communications technology change in general and the spread of smart mob devices in particular. He asks good questions, and he’s two steps ahead of more narrowly focused tech analysts. If the author is a bit too enamored of the geek world and too suspicious of those who would enter it for profit, Smart Mob is nonetheless a lively and reliable guide to the wireless landscape and its broadest policy implications.
Kathleen Courrier ([email protected]) is vice president for communications at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C.