Howard Rheingold: Smart mobs use mobile media and computer networks to organize collective actions, from swarms of techo-savvy youth in urban Asia and Scandinavia to citizen revolts on the streets of Seattle, Manila, and Caracas. Wireless community networks, webloggers, buyers and sellers on eBay are early indicators of smart mobs that will emerge in the coming decade. Communication and computing technologies capable of amplifying human cooperation already appear to be both beneficial and destructive, used by some to support democracy and by others to coordinate terrorist attacks. Already, governments have fallen, subcultures have blossomed, new industries have been born and older industries have launched counterattacks.
There are both dangers and opportunities posed by this emerging phenomenon. Smart mob devices, industries, norms, and social consequences are in their earliest stages of development, but they are evolving rapidly. Current political and social conflicts over how smart mob technologies will be designed and regulated pose questions about the way we will all live for decades to come.
A number of new technologies make smart mobs possible and the pieces of the puzzle are all around us now, but haven't joined together yet. Wireless Internet nodes in cafes, hotels, and neighborhoods are part of it. The radio chips designed to replace barcodes on manufactured objects are part of it. Millions of people who lend their computers to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence are part of it. The reputation systems used on eBay and Slashdot, and the peer to peer capabilities demonstrated by Napster point to other pieces of the puzzle.
Some mobile telephones are already equipped with location-detection devices and digital cameras. Some inexpensive mobile devices already read barcodes and send and receive messages to radio-frequency identity tags. Some furnish wireless, always-on Internet connections. Large numbers of people in industrial nations will soon have a device with them most of the time that will enable them to link objects, places and people to online content and processes. Point your device at a street sign, announce where you want to go, and follow the animated map beamed to the box in your palm; or point at a book in a store and see what the Times and your neighborhood reading group have to say about it. Click on a restaurant and warn your friends that the service has deteriorated.
The big battle coming over the future of smart mobs concerns media cartels and government agencies are seeking to reimpose the regime of the broadcast era in which the customers of technology will be deprived of the power to create and left only with the power to consume. That power struggle is what the battles over file-sharing, copy protection, regulation of the radio spectrum are about. Are the populations of tomorrow going to be users, like the PC owners and website creators who turned technology to widespread innovation? Or will they be consumers, constrained from innovation and locked into the technology and business models of the most powerful entrenched interests?
Telephone companies and cable operators, with enormous investments in old technologies, are moving to control who can build enterprises on the Internet, and the kinds of enterprises they can create. The expensive auctions of radio spectrum for next-generation "3G" mobile communications are threatened by the emergence of radically more cost effective technologies in the form of grassroots wireless networks.
The entire 1920s scheme for regulating the use of the electromagnetic spectrum is thrown into question by the invention of "cognitive radios" and other wireless technologies that put power into the hands of user communities rather than central broadcasters.
Five Hollywood movie studios and the four giant companies that dominate the global recording industry say they are trying to protect intellectual property, but are backing legislation and "protection devices" that will lock down computers and the Internet into a pay-for-play model in which only the largest players will be allowed to create or distribute content or services online, permitted to create new kinds of computers, or empowered to invent things like the Web.
Although the recording industry succeeded in shutting down Napster, and the legal arguments were about the theft of copyrighted music, the technical significance of peer-to-peer resource sharing is far greater than even the future of the music industry. Seventy million people used Napster within the first months of its existence. When tens of millions of people pool their computing power, many things become possible.
Seti@home uses the idle processing power of millions of PCs to search for life in outer space and other CPU-sharing "distributed computing" networks help search for new medicines, understand the immune system, crack codes, predict the weather. Wireless networks show that communication bandwidth can be pooled. Combining the data storage, computation, and communication power of millions of PCs makes possible entirely new kinds of science, business, and social enterprise, based on the emergent power of millions of individuals.
Combine wearable computing, wireless communications, and peer-to-peer resource sharing, and all the people in a building or a crowd walking down the street can join into ad-hoc networks.
As influential as the Internet has been, it has been, for the most part, confined to computers on desktops. Mobile communication and pervasive computing technologies are permeating every part of our professional and personal lives with Internet-enabled capabilities. Just as the microprocessor and the television screen combine into an entirely new technology with its own capabilities, the personal computer, and millions of computers linked through the global telecommunication network constitute an entirely new technology with its own capabilities, the Internet, the marriage of the mobile telephone and the Internet will result in far more than email or stock quotes in your pocket - the mobile Internet in a computation-pervaded environment will constitute an entirely new medium with its own properties.
Will the architecture and regulation of the emerging wireless Internet be dictated by and empower a few large, highly centralized institutions such as corporations and governments, or will it favor the cooperative innovations of millions of citizens - the way the architecture and regulation of the wired Internet made the Web possible?
The people who make up smart mobs cooperate in ways never before possible because they carry devices that possess both communication and computing capabilities. Their mobile devices connect them with other information devices in the environment as well as with other people's telephones.
Dirt-cheap microprocessors embedded in everything from box tops to shoes are beginning to permeate furniture, buildings, neighborhoods, products with invisible intercommunicating smartifacts. When they connect the tangible objects and places of our daily lives with the Internet, handheld communication media mutate into wearable remote control devices for the physical world.
The cost, size, and performing power of computers, video displays, and wireless communications are moving from the computer industry into the fashion industry, as wearable computers embedded in clothing become cost-effective. Ultimately, with peer-to-peer methodologies, reputation systems that mediate trust between strangers, and ad-hoc broadband networks, wearable devices will be desired, purchased, and used as much for their social capabilities as for their utility as information appliances.
There are the dangers as well as opportunities concerning smart mobs. I used the word "mob" deliberately because of its dark resonances. Humans have used our talents for cooperation to organize atrocities. Technologies that enable cooperation are not inherently pathological: unlike nuclear bombs or land mines, smart mob technologies have the potential for being used for good as well as evil.
Nevertheless, years before the September 11, 2001 attacks, commentator Thomas Friedman prophetically referred to "superempowered individuals" such as Osama Ben Laden who use modern technologies and networked organizations to execute acts of terrorism. RAND corporation analysts have pointed out that the Russian mafia and Colombian narcotics trafficking enterprises use "netwar" methods combining communication networks, social networks, and networked forms of organization.
On the other hand, when cooperation breaks out, civilizations advance and the lives of citizens improve. This is the big opportunity of smart mobs. Language, the alphabet, cities, the printing press did not eliminate poverty or injustice, but they did make it possible for groups of people to create cooperative enterprises such as science and democracy that increased the health, welfare, and liberty of many.
Just as medicine only became an effective weapon against illness when science furnished useful knowledge about the nature of diseases, the most effective use of communication and computer technologies could emerge from new scientific understandings of human cooperation. The most powerful opportunities for human progress are rooted not in electronics but in understandings of social practices. Sociologists, political scientists, evolutionary biologists, even nuclear warfare strategists have contributed the first clues that an interdisciplinary science of cooperation might be emerging.
Mobile communications and pervasive computing have the potential for magnifying cooperation far more powerfully than previous technologies; coupled with new knowledge about the social dynamics of collective action, smart mob technologies could make possible improvements in the way billions of people live.