According to Rheingold, the Manila protesters and the Palm Pilot-wielding demonstrators who disrupted the World Trade Organization’s 1999 Seattle meeting were avatars of a new form of social organization: the “smart mob,” an ad-hoc alliance formed fleetingly by people who may not know one another but share a common, immediate goal and can communicate instantaneously. Powerful, fast, and ubiquitous computing devices will, he argues, permit new forms of cooperation to develop. He hopes that mobile communications will create an environment where “epidemics of cooperation” can flourish, whether among rescue workers, doctors, or plain everyday pedestrians.
Rheingold, co-founder of Wired magazine’s online community and former editor of the Whole Earth Review, helped create the gee-whiz messianic tone that infected most technology coverage by the time of the dot-com boom. Smart Mobs, like most of his previous books, styles itself as a report from the trenches, introducing readers to the cleverest corporate researchers and most inventive minds, unsystematically dipping into sociology and psychology, and trying to sum it all up under a single thesis. Thus it’s a bit of a grab bag: Between chatting up communards in Scandinavia and self-made cyborgs in Toronto, he contemplates al Qaeda’s use of cell phones, Garrett Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons, and the threat of increasingly precise government and corporate surveillance. Still, a few themes can be teased out of the tangle.
He begins by asking why people cooperate at all, leading the reader through potted histories of game theory and the evolution of altruism before getting back to technology. People come to cooperate based on such factors as shared history, apparent trustworthiness, and social reputation. But as anyone who uses the Internet is aware, electronic communication is often anonymous, making these factors hard to gauge. Rheingold admits this problem has not been satisfactorily solved.
The heart of his book catalogs the technologies he believes will enable these new forms of cooperation. Most involve so-called “pervasive computing,” in which small microchips that transmit information wirelessly will be embedded in all sorts of everyday objects. Clothes and cars will tell you who owns them or how to go about fixing them. One company already sells a chip that, implanted subcutaneously, stores a patient’s medical history. Smart-mob members, Rheingold suggests, will cooperate not just with other people but with other things. (It’s not always clear what he means by “cooperate,” however–are you “cooperating” with Kelloggs when you scan the price off a cereal box?)
Finally, Rheingold looks at the effect that phones, Palm Pilots, and other pervasive devices have already had. In Japan, the mobile phone has played the same liberating role for teenagers that the automobile did in America, creating a “place” where they can socialize away from parental supervision. In the United States, urban geeks are disrupting telecommunication-company plans and creating free, citywide wireless networks by making their Internet connections accessible without charge (see “The Broadband Militia,” by Michael Behar, March).
Actual smart mobs, however, remain elusive. Even Rheingold’s best examples don’t meet all his own criteria. He admits that texting’s main role in Manila was not as a tool for cooperation but as a medium for “moral support.” Likewise, the Seattle demonstrations were not ad hoc, but “deliberate and tactically focused.” The closest he comes to nailing down what he means by the term is “mobile ad hoc social networks”–but that would seem to include less-novel phenomena, such as CB radio buddies.
Perhaps more to the point, in all the cases that Rheingold cites, mobile devices were used spontaneously to protest or disrupt, not to accomplish anything constructive. Early government attempts to coordinate activities like disaster relief by amassing location-specific databases (such as Al Gore’s now-defunct “Digital Earth” initiative) have foundered due to insufficient funding, bureaucratic inertia, and a lack of common standards. Given that history, Rheingold’s belief that simply adding new technology to the mix will magically spur coordinated activity seems hopelessly optimistic.
Pervasive technology is sure to have many effects on the way we live our lives, and “smart mobs” could turn out to be one of them. But the book doesn’t make a convincing case. Read it for investment tips, to learn what the kids in Tokyo and San Francisco are up to, or just to marvel at the newest gadgets–but not if you’re looking for the revolution.