Smart Mobs: smart mob(ile)s or smart Men On Bits?

On: September 16, 2007
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About Erik Borra
Erik Borra is assistant professor in Journalism and New Media at the University of Amsterdam.


In this review, Howard Rheingold’s vision on the future of communication and interaction is explained, as layed out in his book ‘Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution’, 2002.

Rheingold noted that SMS has been used for dating in teenage culture but also for the mobilization of big groups; for example in the overthrowing of the Filipinian government in 2001 or the goal orientedness of the protests in Seattle. Instead of just seeing SMS as a technology in his book, Rheingold takes you on a journey to discover the broader system that enables such a seemingly simple medium to have such a profound impact on society.

Three observations are at the basis of Rheingold’s book:

  1. There are ever smaller, more powerful, and cheaper computational devices,
  2. There is more and more ‘always on’ wireless communication to, and connectivity between, these devices,
  3. The people using them constitute and live in social networks which can be easily accessed anytime at any place, through these devices.

Rheingold’s central thesis is that the combination of these three offers people a new way to combine their knowledge and energy. This then gives rise to Smart Mobs: ad-hoc self organizing networks of people in the technosphere, capable of collective action. In his book he looks at how people interact with, and through, close-by and invisible ubiquitous technologies like the Internet, mobile phones, wireless and the web. He extrapolates from his observations and goes on a quest to get wiser. He foresees that the possibility to add wireless communication in every device will be another shift in the way people will interact with each other.

“Smart Mobs are packet-switched. … Packet-switched means that you’re not reliable, you’re not in control, you’re not deterministic. Victorians of a certain bent adopted a fatalistic view of the universe as an utterly predictable billiard-table whose balls were set in motion by the Supreme First Mover. Smart Mobs live in an evolutionary hothouse that has more in common with the randomwalking properties of colony animals than with the military discipline of yestercenturies revolutions, cartels and governments.” Cory Doctorow, 2002

To support his thesis Rheingold looks at Game Theory for theories on human behavior: what is it that makes people cooperate? He also looks at social network theory to see how knowledge can be shared and groups can be formed, and pays attention to the importance of public commons (e.g. access to the wireless networks).

Essential in his discussion on cooperation is the notion of reputation and representation of the self. On what condition are you willing to cooperate with somebody, be it for a protest, for a financial transaction, or to find the right date. Although very enthusiastic about the whole idea of collective action, he warns against top-down control and the surveillance society. Rheingold explores the directions taken by Slashdot and on eBay to set up a system where reputation and trust are assigned communally by your past actions in that sphere. Although Game Theory and sociology give a pointer in this direction, Rheingold notes that a lot of research is still to be done. Given the fact that more and more devices will be connected and that there will be more and more possibilities for cooperation, how do you manage it all? Should (dealing with) social relations be built into devices?

Howard Rheingold takes you on a journey to explore what happens when computational devices are getting smaller and wireless communication is possible everywhere. He gives a good overview of the things that are already in place and the very probable future, constituting an augmented reality, ahead. His book is a wonderful introduction to the issues at hand, thought provoking, and well worth the read for anybody interested in future of communication and social interaction.

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