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Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution

Author: Howard Rheingold
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing, 2002
Review Published: August 2004

 REVIEW 1: Wendy Robinson
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Howard Rheingold

Rich reviews!

I relish readers like Wendy Robinson and Julian Kilker. For the most part, the questions raised by the reviewers are the kinds of questions I was hoping for. I hope to pursue some of those questions myself, and I hope that the book will help others formulate and pursue questions like those raised by Robinson and Kilker. I didn't realize in 1992, when I wrote The Virtual Community, that an entire sub-genre of cyberspace studies, a discipline that didn't exist yet, would focus on critiquing that work! When I wrote Smart Mobs, I was not only hoping to learn from the best of 10 years of criticism, but hoping to provide inspiration, frameworks for understanding, and a good bibliography for the emerging disciplines associated with the study of mobility, technology, and society.

I tried to avoid advocating a particular point of view except for this one: Laws and technologies that enclose and constrain the ability of individual users to reshape mobile media -- as we did with the PC and the Internet -- will yield less wealth, less freedom, and more concentration of power than one in which citizens are free to innovate. I admit to that bias and tried to make a case for it.

If I have one criticism of the reviews, it is that the most important chapter, Chapter Two, was not commented upon -- this chapter, about new understandings about the nature and dynamics of collective action, is probably more important than the strictly technological aspects of Smart Mobs.

Here are some quotes from the reviews, followed by a few brief remarks of my own.

    "Sit in any airport or other public area and it may well seem that this ubiquity is less about forming a human chain than about apprehension and idle chatter, as well as an excuse for ignoring the human beings in proximity."

Instead of using newspapers, magazines, and books as an excuse for ignoring the human beings in the airport? If you had cited a church service, a family picnic, a town hall meeting, that would be a serious critique. But is there really something wrong with tuning people out when you are sitting in Heathrow or O'Hare?

    "Seriously, in these counterterrorist times, if we can subvert corporate and governmental interests in smart ways to achieve greater personal or cultural electronic freedom, then what might be the implications? Might not the kind of organized disobedience that Rheingold advocates be precisely the kind of activity that waves a red flag for the Office of Homeland Security..."

Did I promote this tactic -- or report it?

    "Should flash mobs be included under the broad umbrella of smart mobs, although they do not seem 'smart' in the generally accepted sense of the term?"

The important point about this early indicator of a new kind of social practice, is that people started using their new ability to communicate away from the desktop to self-organize their own entertainment. And they are practicing urban collective action. The critics seem to focus on what we know now -- the possibility for insurrection. I doubt whether that will be the only outcome of the ability to coordinate and organize just in time and just in place.

    "Is texting your roommate from the gym to discuss ordering a pizza revolutionary?"

I recommend David Zaret's book, "Origins of Democratic Culture," in which he makes a case for the religious petitions of dissenters in 17th century England as laying the groundwork for a printing-press-enabled public sphere that eventually led to truly revolutionary events -- the overthrow of monarchies and construction of constitutions. The author speaks to the disregard for vulgar and rudimentary media like these petitions as "several generations of critics, from Lippmann to Derrida and Bordieu, to conclude that public opinion is a sham and the public sphere 'a conjuring trick' . . . Scrutiny of this pessimistic conclusion is a subsidiary goal of this book. We shall see that such pessimism -- so central a feature in current theoretical writings on the public sphere -- relies on grossly unbalanced assessments of communicative change, mostly pertaining to the novelty and implications of commerce and textual reproduction..."

I am not at all entirely joyful about the always-on, ever-surveilled, sensor-pervaded world, and I do have fears for the future of liberty. I share some of the apprehensions of the reviewers.

I would say that I am very happy that neither reviewer charges me with failing to look at the big picture. Thank you for thoughtful reviews. I do not value as highly those reviews, no matter how laudatory, that lack the kinds of questions and critiques raised by Robinson and Kilker.

Howard Rheingold


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