Since 1968, the Whole Earth Catalog has been a valuable sourcebook for freethinkers, do-it-yourselfers, and back-to-the-landers. Its most recent full-fledged catalog, published in 1994, opened by noting that the price of computing "has dropped so far since the first Whole Earth Catalog that we have entered the era of desktop everything: desktop publishing, desktop audio, desktop video. Book publishing, radio and television production, and music distribution used to require buildings full of heavy machinery. Communications capabilities once reserved for government or corporate elites now reside in tens of millions of citizens' desktops."
It is a sign of how quickly technology can evolve that those desktops, once the sign of individual liberation, now seem somewhat clunky themselves. Less than a decade after the catalog's then-editor wrote those words, the equivalent computing power can be found not just on desks but in people's pockets. The social implications of that revolution are discussed in Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution (Perseus, 2002), the most recent book by the man who described the desktop revolution in 1994: Howard Rheingold.
Rheingold has spent more than two decades at the intersection between the cyberculture and the counterculture, including a mid-'80s stint as one of the hosts of the WELL, a Whole Earth-sponsored venture that was one of the most successful early online communities. (It still exists today.) The 55-year-old writer has served as editor of the Whole Earth Review and of HotWired and has written several books, of which the most famous is The Virtual Community (1993), a study of the associations people form online.
In Smart Mobs, Rheingold observes people communicating via cell phones, pagers, and hand-held computers, explores the new forms of social interaction he sees emerging, and asks what will happen when those technologies become ubiquitous. The book also describes the ongoing effort to add computing power to our environment -- the buildings we occupy, the objects we buy, even the clothes we wear -- and speculates about what will happen as electronically equipped people interact with this electronically equipped terrain.
Rheingold is no Pollyanna. In his book and his weblog, smartmobs.com, he strikes a careful balance between skepticism and enthusiasm. He's not a determinist either: He recognizes that there are many different ways these technologies could evolve and many different battlegrounds where their social context is being shaped. The book's most interesting investigations center on those political battles and on the question that lurks behind almost all of them: As the line between real space and cyberspace begins to fade, how much power will ordinary people have over the online world?
Rheingold currently lives in Mill Valley, California. Associate Editor Jesse Walker spoke with him in January.
reason: What's the difference between a community and a mob?
Howard Rheingold: The whole notion of "community" is a vast, fuzzy semantic and political swamp. But I think people in communities know each other and have relationships. People in mobs don't necessarily have those relationships.
The same thing is true of a market. People who buy and sell stock together determine collectively the price of those stocks through their transactions. They are engaged together in a collective action. They don't know each other.
reason: What forms of collective behavior are emerging from smart-mob technology?
Rheingold: On the political level, you're seeing peaceful democratic demonstrations like the ones [that brought down President Joseph Estrada] in the Philippines. You're also seeing riots, like the Miss World riots in Nigeria. Not all forms of human cooperation are pro-social. Some of them are antisocial.
In South Korea, Kenya, and the U.S., mobile communications devices helped sway the results of recent elections. In Kenya they feared corruption would enter the process when they shipped the ballot boxes to a central counting place, so poll watchers reported the results directly from the polls instead. In Korea there was a last-minute surge for a candidate who ultimately won that was organized mostly by people using the Internet and SMS [short message service] devices, sending out text messages at the last moment. And in the U.S. election, Karl Rove, Bush's political strategist, constantly used his Blackberry [handheld Internet device] to coordinate actions by Republican poll workers getting out the vote.
reason: Someone might say, "Well, people get on the phone and organize political action all the time."
Rheingold: A phone tree isn't an ancient form of political organizing, but you have to call every person. One of the reasons why the street demonstrations in the Philippines worked, and the riots in Nigeria worked, is that you can send a text message to people and they can forward it to everyone in their address books. So you can communicate with a very large network very quickly in a way that you simply can't with a telephone.
Also, a lot of people message and use the telephone at the same time. Particularly in business -- if you're having a telephone conversation, and someone asks you a question about marketing or engineering, you can get an answer instantaneously from someone who has marketing or engineering information.