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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

Howard Rheingold's Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution is his most recent in a landmark series of cyberculture books that includes The Virtual Community (1993/2000), Virtual Reality (1991/1992), and Tools for Thought (1985/2000). Smart Mobs is The Virtual Community revisioned, a rethinking of networked relationships and social activism for the mobile digital age. The title refers to smart mobiles or smart mobility or using intelligent wireless technology. The title plays with the idea of the swarm mind, using hives or mobs of smart people to accomplish great endeavors collaboratively.

The text is organized similarly to The Virtual Community. There is an introduction framed by an epiphany of discovery, early chapters on what wireless mobility is and how it came about, followed by a case made for the inherent social power of the technology, and concluding with a consideration of some of the dystopic implications or what happens if that inherent technosocial power is abused. If The Virtual Community was "Hey, I can type and talk online with anyone around the world and better yet, hang out with others seemingly like me, while sitting in front of my computer -- just think of where we can take this from here," then Smart Mobs is "Hey, I can hang out in real-time with anyone electronically, text messaging and talking on my mobile phone, and I'm not stuck in front of my computer -- just think of where we . . ."

This is not damning with faint praise: Rheingold captures the essence of the connectivity buzz that never quite goes away for many of us, geeks and non-geeks. His honest and sincere voice that advocates the intelligent, cooperative use of personal electronics comes through loud and clear in Smart Mobs as it has in his earlier work. Rheingold is our most loveable cyber prophet. He seems to genuinely believe that he is on to something new and different when he finds a topic worthy of book-length consideration. If the reader can hold his or her skepticism at bay, then Rheingold provides a great ride. He provides a peek inside the office parks and research centers at who is bringing about the next wave of innovation and how we can participate as users.

Texting with Howard

Howard Rheingold is a fabulous writer. It has been said before and bears repeating that he is a wonderful storyteller, he writes cleanly and with concision, and he does his research thoroughly. Rheingold has access to the engineers, entrepreneurs, scientists, and early adopters who strongly contribute to technosocial change, and he captures their personae, weaving interviews through the narrative. He has a knack for catching trends at the right time to be effectively evangelical, but not so early as to miss out on popularity and not so late that his pioneering effort is taken for granted.

Furthermore, as just noted, his narrative voice is appealing. As a reader, you want to root for Howard -- you feel you know him on a first-name basis. His work surely deserves its status as essential reading in cyberculture studies. It would be great if Smart Mobs could hold up over time as well as The Virtual Community and Tools for Thought.

But about that first-name basis and cyberculture status: In the interests of disclosure, two admissions:
  1. Rheingold and I are on the advisory board of the Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies and he was generous enough to share the galleys of his book while I was writing my dissertation on personal, wireless technology. Smart Mobs was a great help, as was the author himself. At the time, his was one of the first books of what Hay (2004; see also Lash & Featherstone, 1999) terms "mobility studies."

  2. Rheingold generously invited me to join his Brainstorms virtual community, which I participated in for several months. I was online while Smart Mobs was awaiting publication and immediately afterwards, when his community members were full of excitement about the book and associated personal electronics. Rheingold leverages lessons learned from The Virtual Community along with his charisma to encourage the activist mind share he advocates (see Julian Kilker's addendum). As such, Smart Mobs and the Web site work in tandem to tap the transformative social potential outlined in the book. Rheingold doesn't just say he wants a revolution: This time he tries to nudge it into being, and a humane, sustainable revolution at that. I was fortunate to witness these efforts taking place outside the covers of the book.
All Thumbs

In Smart Mobs, Rheingold's scope is admirably global and focused on culture as well as individuals and organizations. The story of the book's genesis is seamlessly woven with the author's consideration of various theories of group mind, its psychology, and how it operates. Examples are drawn from sources such as the medieval guilds -- "cooperative, ‘just in time' groups formed by the union of like-minded individuals who shared a common goal and space" (39) -- biological illustrations of social dynamics, and the social potential intrinsic to Internet architecture. In the sixth chapter, "Wireless Quilts," Rheingold discusses 802.11b networks or WiFi, urban wireless groups, the FCC and spectrum allocation, and Bluetooth and infrared ports (133-56), on the way to the seventh and key chapter, "Smart Mobs," which could be a standalone. In this penultimate chapter, Rheingold brings together his gathered research to make a case for how wireless technology can be used to unite people across the planet and to undermine those who seek to exploit and separate us from each another.

His methodology, then, is inductive: Rheingold marshals many discrete bits of evidence to develop his argument for the synergy of smart mobs. And he takes the reader along on his voyage of collective discovery.

In the first chapter, Rheingold explores "Generation Txt" (20-24) in Japan, Scandinavia, the Philippines, Copenhagen, London, New York, Boston, Seattle and San Francisco. He starts out in Tokyo, where he observes the oyayubisoku or "thumb tribes" (1-7). These are young people who avidly send text messages to each other, much like instant messages, through tiny keypads on their cell phones. This was a found usage that the telecommunications providers didn't anticipate, but which has since become a significant generator of income. What struck Rheingold was that the users were staring into their phones, rather than talking on them at a time when the Web was becoming bogged down with bells and whistles. The subcultural usage signaled a return to text-based basics, less being more. Moreover, the thumbers could slyly carry on conversations from anywhere, at any time, without being overheard. Hence, they were "smart" or clever.

Another group that impressed him was the Aula community in Finland, in which "mobile tribes . . . mingle in the physical world." Their shared technology is used to bring people together instead of forcing separation (17-18). Shortly after his first encounter with Aula, however, Rheingold recalled meeting with a Swedish user who was so immersed in a mobile phone-based game that he could barely look up long enough to acknowledge the author's here-and-now presence (18). Nevertheless, multiplayer, location-based games and their users are among Rheingold's examples of smart applications and "mobs" or ad hoc groups.

The heart of the book follows his investigation into who is developing cool wireless stuff and who is thinking outside the box in terms of distributed connectivity. He meets with or refers to open-source, online community, and academic advocates, such as Linus Torvald on Linux (51), Tim Berners-Lee and Marc Andreesen on the Web (52), Lawrence Lessig on the "cyber commons" (54-55), and Barry Wellman on "social networks" (56-57). He pays calls on SETI (66-69), Shawn Fanning (71-74), CoolTown (94-9), DARPA and the MIT Media Laboratory for research on ambient computing (103-6), and on living and breathing cyborgs, Steve Mann and Thad Starner (106-12). Many of these men (and they are all men -- few women cross the pages of Smart Mobs) and their work are discussed in greater depth in later chapters.

Dude, Where's My Phone?

Rheingold's keen timing was mentioned earlier. As with Tools for Thought and The Virtual Community, Smart Mobs was published just before the potential it envisions did actually change the world, or has been simultaneous with a shift in how we lead our everyday lives that has been associated with technological innovation. Nevertheless, the paradigmatic shift or "social revolution" has been affective on so many levels that it exceeds Rheingold's grasp. No matter how much he may have felt that he was engaging in hyperbole while writing, and may, in fact, have done so, the unleashed bottom-up revolution and repressive top-down counterrevolution have gotten away from him. With Smart Mobs, this may have happened so completely and so transparently that the import can get lost for those who don't remember what our ordinary technosocial lives were like before its publication.

The online world described in The Virtual Community was not commercial. It was text-based and low bandwidth; it came before home pages. Smart Mobs was published not long after September 11, the dot-com meltdown, and the surge in popularity of cellular telephones, which have had greater demographic penetration than the Internet in many parts of the world, and which have been more rapidly adopted than has been the Internet. The potential of Rheingold's newest book, then, is perhaps greater than that of The Virtual Community, for which it is intentionally a companion volume.

But in 2004, the book's technology already is less cool than commonplace. The cell phones of Smart Mobs do not have cameras or MP3 players, they are not universal remotes, and they are not even handset-phone-PDAs. They are not yet connected to the Internet, as is increasingly the case in parts of Asia and Europe. In early 2002, not yet "everyone" was yakking away, using up bonus minutes. Rheingold may have been a tad early, as he was with The Virtual Community, writing about online life moments before the Web onslaught. This means that the technology he enthused about already had faded for users who never used gopher, Usenet, bulletin boards, etc. This is not to say that Rheingold is unaware of the problem. He probably is even more enthusiastic about subsequent innovations and their potential. But the book as an artifact lags behind its author and his subject matter. While the companion Web site to Smart Mobs helps pick up some of the slack, few readers will be motivated to move beyond the bound pages and probably not those who find the book dated.

Rheingold got it right about thumbing and texting, but obviously he could not have anticipated the intrusions into privacy set off by terrorism in New York City, Washington, D.C., Madrid, London, Bali, and in parts of the mideast, the tracking and tagging uses of Global Positioning Systems, the surveillance of crossed databases that silently encroach on civil liberties. Clearly our privacy is eroding nearly on a daily basis. Rheingold partially saw it coming and wants to address the downside, and does so in the last chapter. He heard his critics of The Virtual Community. This time he doesn't content himself with celebrating mobility and an ethos of liberation; he tries to do more than pay lip service to the dystopic possibilities of "amplified cooperation" (183).

At the end of Smart Mobs, Rheingold discusses the Panoptic implications of smart mobile technology, but those implications are vast and pressing. It's really not a matter of if or when there will be technosocial abuse, but how deeply the surveillance will penetrate and what we -- as atomized users, networked although inevitably separate from each other with our own chosen, personalized systems -- can do about it. Nevertheless, the cell phone quickly has become a symbol and means of cultural conformity and nearly inescapable connectivity. Indeed, it commonly is assumed that people -- across a range of ages, lifestyles and socioeconomic class -- will take their cell-phone-slash-homing-device with them for use on the go, like a media appendage or for security. 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.

In contrast with the complexity and obscurity that using personal computers and accessing the Internet once seemed to hold, there isn't much to learn about how to use handheld devices, since nearly everyone in westernized or capitalist society uses telephones, wristwatches, calculators and appointment books. The technological shift may not feel all that marked. It seems a stretch to assert that combining telephony with some Net-delivered services will change the world from this point forward, particularly since we've been doing that all along through the Internet with its protocols, which Rheingold touches on repeatedly.

Furthermore, by emphasizing the advocacy and communal potential, he perhaps restricted the pedagogic usefulness of Smart Mobs (e.g., since the late 1990s, chapters from The Virtual Community have been anthologized in textbooks for Net-related courses). Also, the story he tells is multifarious, with many parallels to uncover and threads to follow. The reader may get lost in the maze of marginally related details. On the other hand, Rheingold pushed past his journalistic roots to reach for more than a chronicle of the great deeds of others and a how-to for social change. With Smart Mobs, Rheingold wants to implement change.

But for those who see the cell phone as integral to their lives like a blow dryer or electric grill or laptop -- college students, for instance -- Smart Mobs may well read as a rant. Younger people today almost don't remember life without a cordless phone, so what's the big deal? Is texting your roommate from the gym to discuss ordering a pizza revolutionary? No, it isn't and Rheingold knows it isn't. That's "revolutionary" in the commercial sense of sundry technological innovations and how bright, shiny transistorized objects are marketed. Besides which, undergraduates typically are coming from a different developmental place vis-à-vis individualism and conformity. What may appeal to them about the mobile story is less about changing the world than a deeper probe of why the stuff seems so cool, its role within popular, material culture and associated semiotics of status.

The Consuming Masses

I'm nagged by the thought that the book may have been circumscribed by its clever title and easy slide into populist sloganeering. There is much more to be said -- and Rheingold surely could more than meet the challenge, if he chose to -- about the effect and potential of mobile personal electronics that isn't in Smart Mobs. I worry when emphasis is placed on "the future," however imminent, and there is amnesia regarding the past and its lessons. I would like to read more on the evolution from personal computers to personal electronics and on what that means; on the shift from the disembodied Internet to the embodiment of mobility and on what that means; on the latest silicon gold rush and how infotainment conglomerates are blurring the distinctions between content, services, and devices (e.g., Apple, Microsoft, Sony, HP with Starbucks, or are not, e.g., AT&T and Time Warner) and on what that means.

What about women and the personal devices pitched to us? How do we figure into this story? If women mostly are absent, is it because Rheingold's working premise is less generalizable than it seems? Or are we specifically sold merchandise that separates us -- which, if so, is an intriguing conclusion to draw, even if it works against his thesis. Some of these considerations do figure into Smart Mobs, but read a bit desultory. It's as though considering how we got to where we are today is an expected obligation that the author has to slow down and meet before he can turn to his current interests.

But this is the nitty gritty: How did we get mobile? Were we immobile before? Are we becoming networked nomads (technomads)? How does this latest "social revolution" differ from previous technosocial shifts? How does it match up? Is it about connectivity? If so, then some of the problems can be traced to the first tapping on little keys and globally linked communication brought about through the electric telegraph, as Rheingold lightly notes. Is it about miniaturization? Then there is a history from the transistor radio, to follow out recent popular culture. Is it about being simultaneously online while engaged in the real world? If so, then what is "virtual" today? Is there a new digital divide? Whose lives and what activities does such hands-free access, often without agency in evidence, make easier? What does it mean to live with phantoms of surveillance that trace our physical and electronic movements, that even track our eye movements in order to sell us things? And why on earth should we welcome 24/7 access?

Who or what market segments benefit from the consumer adoption and merchandising of goods and services that we previously got along fine without? What about the role of the computer and telecommunications conglomerates that would be delighted to have us use their devices worldwide? They are happy to usher in another socioeconomic "revolution" that extends their brands, so long as their product cycles continue uninterrupted. Although this is expressly not what Rheingold wishes, the book easily can be seen as useful to those who want to hoodwink us into buying more battery-powered gizmos connected to all-seeing satellites and walls that sense our mobile presence. Thus unfortunately it may do a better job of serving the interests of corporate culture and its multinational consolidation of wealth than we, The People. We may be less smart than led by mass consumption, i.e., the duped mobs -- not idiots but not as cognizant as we could be and as Rheingold envisions.

The biggest transformation that may ensue from catching the excitement of Smart Mobs is that of converting your labor and capital into this season's electronic gear and from there into charts of consumer confidence, company coffers, spreadsheets and the like. And if that is the case, then how do the high-minded politics of this book differ from a classic, vintage issue of Wired, complete with Big Brother paranoia? The radical chic of the Macintosh launch is hardly revolutionary two decades later. This is elitist high-tech consumption sold back as style (e.g., as has been brought out by critics such as Berland [2000], Borsook [2000], Johnson [1997], Myerson [2001], Noble [1997/1999], Ross [1998/2001], Silver [2000], and Sobchack [1994/2001]). We have been mobilized to patronize the local consumer electronics store and to purchase annual subscriptions.

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 in the U.S. and similar initiatives in other countries that monitor the citizenry? If so, then what might happen next? Or how could such civic organization be carried out "under the radar" to further noncombatant political change in the West or between West and East? The common example given, by Rheingold and others, has been the use of texting and IM in the Philippines, an instance that perhaps was singular. As Kelly (2004) noted in a review of Smart Mobs, "Rheingold's flagship example, the Philippines' 'People Power II' ouster of President Joseph Estrada, is fast becoming one of the great examples of contemporary myth-making about the power of new technology" (p. 289).

There is genuine, important potential to mine. This is part of the mission of Rheingold's Smart Mobs Web site, which welcomes agitprop suggestions from contributors across the globe. That lived interactivity between book as impetus and online meeting place may be what is most interesting and different about Smart Mobs. The extension of the book paradigm is something that only Rheingold, with his stature, influence, and integrity, could have accomplished on this topic. Thus he is engaged in much more than trend surfing. The social potential he sees and seeks to tap is very much worth actualizing, even if the execution surely falls short of revolution.

How do we transform the objects of material culture so that they can be used to extend human potential, rather than to further enslave us to "the machine" in its corporate, governmental, and military guises? It's a tough dilemma: How can we foster social change through electronic consumption, when that consumption so obviously serves interests that may be oppositional to personal politics? As long as you are keeping up with the electronic Joneses, haven't you (co)opted in?

Better Living through Technology

But maybe Rheingold is right. Maybe this time the technology is dispersed widely enough and is becoming cheap enough that we can raise our cellular fists skyward to eventually achieve an unprecedented solidarity. Contribute to the hive mind of Smart Mobs, if you would like to try. I can't help but think, though, that electronic liberation might be found more easily by choosing anonymity: Use cash rather than traceable credit, find ways to avoid the use of smart cards, erase your cookies and unplug, go offline, connect with others without mediation.

Activism and social interaction don't require being wrapped up in the latest technology. Indeed, personal electronics (e.g., cell phone, audio player, laptop, remote control) often interfere with communicating with those in the immediate vicinity. Rheingold's complicated approach for getting us to talk with each other to foster political change can be seen as an example of what computer ethicists call the "technological fix," or assuming that whatever the technosocial problem, it can be solved through science and engineering. Paper, film, and face-to-face communication still are effective, quite often are low cost, and may not be terribly inconvenient, even for avid cell phone users.

I cannot help but think that quietly "hacking out" -- while likely a time-limited tactic for many endeavors -- may be more subversive of military-industrial interests than the canniest of smart mobs. We choose connectivity, knowing that it restricts while enabling personal freedom. Electronic mobility inescapably implies willing submission, often at significant personal expense, to the machine and its intrinsic alienation. Still, cyberspace is social space, interpersonal space. If forced to choose between paralyzing technophobic despair and Rheingold's faith in transformative cultures and communities, unquestionably I would prefer to be carried away by his contagious enthusiasm for the mind- and social-expanding potential of shared, distributed networks, jacked in and on the fly.


Addendum by Julian Kilker

In Smart Mobs, Howard Rheingold has provided an intriguing concept for a broad range of emerging technosocial behaviors. But are the online "mobs" described in the book particularly intelligent, or are they merely clever in their use of technologies and social activities? Rheingold's use of apparently contradictory words in the title, as with his earlier Virtual Communities, encourages thought-provoking core research questions for emerging technology scholars.

Mainstream media coverage of the variant "flash mobs" underlines the general challenge of understanding intentionality in online groups. Flash mobs peaked during the 2003 summer "silly season," when hard news coverage traditionally slows. The volume of discussion on organizing sites and lists that cited Smart Mobs as inspiration -- including flashmob.com, cheesebikini.com and Flocksmart.com -- rose and fell extraordinarily rapidly in mid-2003. Discussions on these sites emphasized intentionally absurd behaviors. Spoons were publicly berated in Los Angeles. "Love rugs" were requested at Macy's in New York City. Instead of protesting the war in Iraq, "Natasha" was mysteriously toasted in Berlin in front of the U.S. embassy. These events were characterized by low turn-out: The Los Angeles Times noted that the "six people who gathered to berate their spoons could hardly rise above the ambient noise." The New York Times headlined a flash mob article, "Guess Some People Don't Have Anything Better to Do" (Ehrman, 2003; Harmon, 2003; Pohl, 2003).

Attempts to coordinate political and commercial mob gatherings were criticized as contrary to the flash mob ideal on sites I examined as part of a research project on collaborative resistance to surveillance. The potential of online "mobs" for collaborative education, protest and resistance was itself resisted. This stood in contrast to Rheingold's examples of mobile communication technologies that could be used for the anti-WTO protests in Seattle and to coordinate protests against Philippine President Estrada.

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 conceptual boundaries of such groups are unclear: For example, can we invert flash mob characteristics and include groups that are motivated, hold an explicit philosophy (including ones with which we might not agree), and yet behave in ways that are not quite mob-like in their use of the very latest technology? If so, online groups that coordinate information on surveillance might fit.

Such online groups include the apparently moribund NYCLU Surveillance Camera Project and The Surveillance Camera Players. In the Project, a "small but dedicated group of New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) volunteers walked the streets of Manhattan in search of video surveillance cameras" and collated their findings to create a map. The Surveillance Camera Players' "founding document" from 1995 reports that it has performed "guerilla programming" in which a "group of individuals create a scenario and act it out using surveillance cameras as if they were their own." Although some of the scenarios might appear as nonsensical to an uninitiated outsider -- as flash mobs yelling at spoons or toasting "Natasha" probably do -- the Players espouse a clear set of positions, as outlined on their Web site. Influenced by avant-garde theatre, the Players' site includes goals such as: "surveillance society, which is an imminent reality, must be critiqued and attacked concurrently." Given that these groups coordinate internationally, and that they publicize their activities online, should they be considered "smart mobs" -- albeit small, ideologically based and technically unsophisticated (at least by alpha geek standards)?

The dilemma of intentionality -- and the boundaries of the phrase "smart mobs" -- suggest the promise and challenges of smart mobs. Rheingold's book and associated Web site provide a useful starting point for the researcher, interested layperson, and activist to link emerging technologies to their specific areas of interest.

Julian Kilker, Ph.D., is assistant professor of emerging technologies in the Hank Greenspun School of Communication and the Greenspun College of Urban Affairs at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. He specializes in the intersection of social interaction, technology, and design. Kilker has published research on social and technical interoperability, shaping control in convergence media, revisiting the concept of "appropriate technology," collaboration in technology design, interdisciplinary collaboration, and the social construction of digital archives. He is currently examining the sociotechnical shaping of personal audio devices and digital archives and -- the basis for the above examples -- ad hoc and intentional resistance in counter-institutional online forums. Kilker can be reached at kilker@unlv.nevada.edu.


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Wendy Robinson:
Wendy Robinson, Ph.D., is a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and a member of the RCCS advisory board. She is writing a book on mobile communication, consumer electronics, technoculture and gender. In 2003-04, she has been leading a mobile lifestyle, commuting weekly between Cincinnati and the Detroit metropolitan area. In addition to this review, RCCS has published her review of Nancy Baym’s Tune In, Log on: Soaps, Fandom, and Online Community and James E. Katz and Mark Aakhus’s Perpetual Contact: Mobile Communication, Private Talk, Public Performance.  <wgrobin@fuse.net>

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