The Mobile Internet Makes Collective Action Possible

For those who haven’t read the book can you explain the concept of Smart Mobs as you envisioned it back in 2002?

Rheingold: Smart mobs are a serious realignment of human affairs in which leaders may determine an overall goal but the actual execution is created on the fly by participants that respond to changing situations without requesting or needing permission.

More and more people are walking down the street communicating with people who are somewhere else. We are seeing the beginning of a new medium, like the PC in the 80’s and the Internet in the 90’s. Each medium has its own characteristics and Smart Mobs combine the mobile phone, the Internet and the PC. Smart mobs emerge when communication and computing technologies intensify human talents for cooperation.
It is also the ability of small and large groups of people to use the virtual world to organize and coordinate actions. For example, a group of people who use mobile communications for collective actions that can vary from influencing politics to the mime on the street.

Where did that idea come from? What was your inspiration? We heard it all started in Tokyo.

Rheingold: Inspiration came from watching people in all parts of the world like teenagers in Japan looking at their mobile phones instead of listening to them, the teenagers would all flock to a certain place coordinated by using text messages.

A million Filipinos drove former President Joseph Estrada, accused of massive corruption out of power two years ago, through public demonstrations organized through barrages of text messages.
More recently, spontaneous communities of buyers and sells are emerging on eBay while al Qaeda used the Web and mobile phones to plan and execute terrorist acts.
The concept started in late 2000 and 2001 as I interviewed people from all around the world who work and play with these technologies to see how this concept has been manifesting itself. I finished the book on it in the spring of 2001.

Today flash mobs use Internet, e-mail, and mobile phone. What do you think can bring the future? What future technologies can lead to what social phenomena?

Rheingold: Flash mobs work by someone emailing participants to meet at a designated place and time. As the participants show up they learn more detailed instructions about what ‘act’ the group will perform.

The technologies are at the early stages of this convergence. Your PC in 1978 was 16K RAM, the Internet connection with text interface, couldn’t do much but now the technology has become more powerful. The Internet was not just something where a PC could connect to other PCs by telephone, it was a new medium with its own properties.
It’s just noticeable now and will become more noticeable as the technology becomes more powerful. The mobile Internet makes things possible that weren’t possible before. It makes collective action possible, people coordinating their activities in configurations and timing that were not possible before.
Collective action, mobile communications and pervasive connections to the Internet are adding up. We are talking about making these changes part of walking down the street or driving in the car.

You’ve been quoted as saying these mobs will change into what you call “ad-hocracies”. What are they?

Rheingold: This is an example of a group of people who are self organizing for a specific purpose or goal. People can connect with each other even if they don’t know each other. The former governor of the state of Vermont, Howard Dean, who held the office longer than anyone with five re-election bids, has been organizing many-to-many telephone texting as part of his bid to become president of the US in 2004. Dean’s campaign has brought him to be a front-runner in a political campaign because a smart mob organized the campaign around the Web.

You believe smart mobs have already become a political force. Can you explain how and give us an example or two?

Rheingold: Yes, a president in South Korea, President Roh Moo-hyun, who wouldn’t be a president if it weren’t for smart mobs that organized the vote campaign and again Howard Dean and his constituents’ organization.

Text messages flashed to the cell phones of almost 800,000 people urging them to go to the polls and vote for Roh. Half a million visitors logged on to his main Web site every day to donate money or obtain campaign updates.
The impact of smart mob technology already appears to be both beneficial and destructive, used by some of its earliest adopters to support democracy and by others to coordinate terrorist attacks. Street demonstrators in the 1999 anti-WTO protests used dynamically updated websites, cell phones and swarming tactics in the ‘battle of Seattle.’

Is it true that you believe this newfound freedom to create smart mobs to ferment a social revolution will cause a backlash from government? How so?

Rheingold: The people who make up smart mobs cooperate in ways never before possible because they carry devices that possess both communication and computing capabilities. Dirt-cheap microprocessors embedded in everything from box tops to shoes are beginning to permeate furniture, buildings, products with invisible intercommunicating smartifacts.

There’s always a seesawing between power and counter-power, which did not do away with powerful people, but rather the way the power was distributed.

We can envisage businesses – like media and technology companies for instance – not being happy with consumers being active users of the technology not just passively being recipients. What are your thoughts?

Howard Rheingold: I don’t know if the populations of tomorrow are 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 interests.

There has to be a downside to this social revolution. Loss of privacy springs to mind, but do you see others?

Rheingold: There are downsides to all-powerful technologies. I call them Smart mobs and mobs has a sinister connotation. Criminals, terrorists, power loss of privacy, all are side effects of the same technologies.

Further Information on Howard Rheingold and Smart Mobs