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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:32 03/09/2007
Debate: Commentary (August 28, 2003)

Smart Mobs: Mobile Communications, Pervasive Computing, Collective Action

Howard Rheingold (Fellow, GLOCOM)

Presented at GLOCOM's Kenkyo-Kyohryoku-Iinkai Meeting on August 28, 2003. More details on this topic are available at:

Smart mobs emerge when communication media and social contracts amplify cooperation. Smart mobs have both beneficial and destructive impacts: like all other powerful media. Smart mobs are about where the PC was in 1980 and the Internet was in 1990.

The Next Wave is Upon Us

The microprocessor and the TV screen did not produce a mainframe you could look at, but personal computers that people who had never used computers used for things computers had not done. The personal computer, plugged into the telecom network, did not produce computers that talked to each other, but the Internet, a metamedium with its own properties. The next wave, the merger of the computer, the mobile telephone, and the Internet, will not be the Internet as we have known it, accessed through the telephone as we have known it. Certain converged media exhibit hybrid vigor.

Unique Characteristics of Networked Media

Many-to-many media: every desktop (and now every pocket) is a printing press, broadcasting station, social space, marketplace. Online media amplify and give rise to new kinds of social networks. Open architectures made the PC and the Internet platforms for bottom-up innovation, where the customers invented new uses that the device designers never expected.

Mobile and Pervasive Media

Mobile and pervasive media are always on and accessible everywhere. Mobile and pervasive media can use the online world to organize collective action in the face-to-face realm. The communicator morphs into a remote control device, connecting the virtual and physical worlds.

The Era of Sentient Things

Sensor networks and smartifacts, will saturate places and objects with information, computation, and communication capabilities. Our mobile, wearable devices will mediate but who controls the inflow and outflow of personal information? Information associated with places gives rise to a new sphere where vast databases of information and opinion about places, accessible from mobile devices, are overlaid on the physical world. Cities are already changing. New markets, social, and political forms will emerge.

Understanding Social Infrastructure

Collective action drives progress and can be amplified by communication technologies and social contracts: democracy, science, the stock market, are forms of collective action enabled by the printing press and the new media of 500 years ago money and banking agreements. The difference between a tragic commons, where individual self-interest leads to mutual disaster, and an innovation commons where individual innovation creates wealth and knowledge for many, lies in the architecture of hardware, software, contracts, and laws but is not well understood. The Internet's end-to-end architecture, open source software production, Napster and SETI@home, eBay, weblogs, use computation and networked communications to multiply collective action.

Early Indicators

Flashmobs and moblogs are the first stirrings of ad-hoc groupminds in the face to face world. WiFi Radio, software-defined radio, mesh networks, apply the power of collective action to the way the electromagnetic spectrum is used and regulated. In the Phillipines, citizens self-organized political demonstrations through mobile text-messaging and brought down the Estrada regime; in Korea the cyber- they used websites, email, and text messages to tip the election toward now-President Roh in the final hours; in the USA, the Howard Dean presidential campaign demonstrated grassroots self-organizing power through, weblogs, and online fundraising.

Critical Uncertainty: Will We Be Users or Consumers?

Will tomorrow's population consist of users who are free to actively shape media, or consumers, constrained by law and technology to only passively purchase what is broadcast to them? Will the tragedy of the anticommons kill innovation? Digital rights management, archaic spectrum regulation controlled by incumbent license holders, the privatization of the public domain and assault on fair use by extension of copyright law, trusted computing mandated by law and instantiated in hardware will prevent the Bill Gates or Tim Berners-Lee of the future to own new industries or give away new media.

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