Is That a Computer in Your Pants?

Cyberculture chronicler Howard Rheingold on smart mobs, smart environments, and smart choices in an age of connectivity


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.

Teenagers in Japan and elsewhere use it precisely because you can communicate silently. Your parents or your teachers can't hear you.

reason: That's a more decentralized process than you have with, for example, Karl Rove getting out the vote.

Rheingold: Well, he's coordinating. You have a mixture of hierarchical and decentralized decision making. You've got a widespread group of folks besides the guy giving orders.

We're also seeing other forms of social activity. Hundreds of thousands of young people in Brazil have a group called Blah! that they use to flirt with. You get a screen name, which protects your real identity. You get a profile, which describes who you are. And you can search for profiles and send them messages. They can reply to you through their handle or through their real identity, or they can block communications from you. It's almost entirely about flirting, and it's mostly young people, and it's popular—400,000 people joined it in the first three months it was in operation. They have face-to-face parties with people standing around texting each other, looking around to see if the people who are texting are the ones they're talking to.

So you've got flirting, you've got gaming, you've got riots, you've got elections, you've got political demonstrations. And these are just the first signs of collective action online. I'm not making a big claim about something that exists today. I'm pointing out some early indicators of what may be happening in a future in which millions of people have devices on them that are not just telephones but also computers connected to networks.

reason: In the book you compare smart-mob behavior to the swarm systems observed in ants and other insects.

Rheingold: You need to make an important distinction, in that swarm systems that have been studied in biology and in complex systems consist of relatively unintelligent actors. With humans, of course, we have intelligent actors.

With ants, you have very sophisticated decision making about where to locate the nest and where are the nearest, best sources of food and what are the routes. These are done not by individuals who make decisions with neurosystems but by the emergent decisions of a whole lot of individual actors.

You've seen recently—Steven Johnson wrote very nicely about it in his book Emergence—that this kind of behavior goes on in cities. Neighborhoods form not because people make conscious decisions about it but because of the emergent behavior of a lot of people who go to the same place for a certain kind of activity. The stock market, again, is another good example. The price of a stock is not decided by any one person but is an artifact of the aggregate transactions of large numbers of people.

I cite some interesting research with "toy markets" that shows that groups of people can make decisions in an emergent manner better than the individuals in the group. The Hollywood Stock Market is an example. People exchange symbolic money, buying and selling stock on what the box office receipts of Hollywood films that are soon to be released will be. And then the films are released; those stocks that have good box office go up and those that don't go down, so there are winners and losers. It turns out that those markets—those aggregate decisions of everyone who's making an investment—can actually predict what will be box office winners better than the individuals in those groups.

reason: The book is about not just smart mobs, but what happens when smart mobs collide with smart environments—what happens when mobility meets pervasiveness.

Rheingold: I think there are two aspects to smart environments. One is information embedded in places and things. The other is location awareness, so that devices we carry around know where we are. When you combine those two, you get a lot of possibilities.

You can associate information with places by putting, in those places, a device that broadcasts information to nearby devices. More practically, you could do it by simply using a server, so if your device knows where you are and it communicates with a server, you can ask about information that's stored about that place. So, for example, you might want to combine these two and point your device down the street and ask, "Is there a good Chinese restaurant in this direction?" Not just "What does Zagat say about it?" but "What do my friends say about it?"

Or, "I'm new in town. How do I get from where I am in relation to Fifth and Main? And what's the crime rate at Fifth and Main at this time of day?" Or, "I'm about to enter this restaurant. What do the people who've eaten here in the last hour say about the service here?" So there's a lot of information that can be associated with places. There's also questions about who has the right to write that information, as well as to access it.

Then there's the idea that individual objects will have some kind of ambient intelligence—that they'll have sensors in them that have information storage and communication capacity, and little radio circuits. We're now seeing the replacement of bar codes, beginning with the radio frequency ID tag. Gillette has just said it's going to buy a half billion of these. These are little microchips that are inexpensive, getting down to pennies or less than a penny, that you can put on an object. The chips will have information about that object, just as a bar code does, except you can write to this information and read from it using radio devices instead of relying on line of sight.

You could, for example, using this technology, point to a book and find out what The New York Times says about it—and also what your book club says about it. You can do that with bar codes today: I reported an experiment on my blog where a friend of mine took a bar code reader and attached it to a hand-held computer. Every object has a story; it's just that citizens and consumers don't have access to what that story is. Soon we're going to have lots of little chips in lots of things, and those chips are going to communicate, and we're going to read information from those chips, and in some cases the chips can read information that we can send to them.

In not too many years, there will be more objects communicating via the Internet than people. We have an environment that's beginning to have ambient awareness. "Intelligent rooms" could have sensors that pick up information you broadcast so that they would know who you are, and what your credit rating is, and what your record with this particular store is.

There's also wearable computing, so that it's not the environment that has the ambient awareness but your clothing that can communicate with objects and the environment. So here we have a very complicated situation: Our clothing, the objects we carry, the devices we encounter, and the places we encounter, in the future, will have information associated with them and in some cases the ability to compute.

reason: A lot of this is still in the research stage. We're still talking about that pure model of how things are supposed to work, before you fall into the messiness of how things work in the real world. When I read your book, I kept imagining myself turning on my computerized glasses, looking at an object, and seeing a 404 Error floating in midair.

Rheingold: One of the quotes in the book is that a side effect of this kind of future might be that nothing works and nobody knows why.

It used to be that if your automobile broke, the teenager down the street with the wrench could fix it. Now you have to have sophisticated equipment that can deal with microchips. We're entering a world in which the complexity of the devices and the system of interconnecting devices is beyond our capability to easily understand.

reason: The book mentions Mark Pesce's idea of "technoanimism." And animism is one of the first things I think of when you describe this world where there are spirits in everything, and they're communicating with each other, and you have to go to an expert to mediate between you and them.

On the other hand, Pesce is worried that "widespread popular beliefs that computationally colonized objects are intelligent …could lead to unpleasant unintended consequences." But a lot of people already react to recalcitrant objects as though they were intelligent. I yell at my car when it breaks down whether or not it has microchips in it.

Rheingold: I think this is qualitatively different. There's what used to be known as the "pathetic fallacy" of projecting human emotions onto objects. Here, the projection is facilitated by the object's calling you by name, knowing what the last thing you bought in the store was, knowing what your credit record is. When that happens, you quite naturally assume that it knows more than that. You don't know what it doesn't know about you, and therefore the room for that kind of projection is much more vast. It's not just an artifact of the human propensity to anthropomorphize things.

reason: You've pointed out that there are questions about who's going to write the information that's embedded in the environment—whether it will come from the top down or emerge from peer-to-peer communication. Do you think people would stand for any smart environment that tries to direct them instead of the other way around? The recent history of the Internet is a series of business models failing because companies thought they could channel people rather than just being there as tools for them.

Rheingold: There are naive notions of how to use these things in commerce. They're going to fail and get a backlash.

reason: Which of these technologies strike you as useful tools you'd like to have, and with which do you think you'd want to hit the off button as soon as you get a chance?

Rheingold: We already know that spam is a huge downside of online life. If we're going to be spammed on our telephones wherever we go, I think we're going to reject these devices. And it may be, like spam and telemarketing today, an annoyance in life that, no matter how much we personally hate it, our choices aren't going to make it disappear. So that's the hellish side of this.

I do think that giving consumers and citizens information about objects that they might want to purchase or interact with, and places they may want to patronize, gives us power and choice. If I can say, "The service in this place has been really shitty," and thus influence who's going to use it in the future, that's going to give me more power. If I'm able to look at the label of an object and choose whether to purchase it based on my political beliefs, that gives me and other consumers more power. With much of what I'm writing about, there's an upside and a downside, and it's hard to tell which ones are going to prevail. I think it's not either/or but both/and.

reason: To what extent do you use mobile devices yourself?

Rheingold: I'm not that much of a road warrior, but when I traveled publicizing the book, I carried a Handspring Treo that enables me to download and upload e-mail very easily and quickly to the Sprint network. And it was invaluable. I could get e-mail from a journalist who wanted an interview while I was in a taxicab from the airport and have the interview arranged by the time I got to the hotel. That was very useful to me. It definitely changed my life.

reason: Would you want to wear a computer?

Rheingold: It depends on how much control I have over it, and its price. But yeah, sure. I like to use my MP3 player, I like to use my mobile phone, and there are times when I want to send and receive e-mail on the run. If all that can be combined into something I can wear, then why not?

Again, it depends on how much control I have over it. I don't want to be called all the time—I want to be able to roll it over to voice mail if I need to. I definitely don't want to be spammed that I can get 25 cents off a burger every time I pass a McDonald's. A lot of it's going to depend on what the experience in the environment is of actually using it.

reason: And a lot of that depends on politics.

Rheingold: I think the overall conflict over emerging technologies is going to be whether we'll be active users who shape the medium, as we were with the personal computer and the Internet, or passive consumers who don't have influence over the medium, as we were in the days of three television networks and one telephone company. That's what a lot of these political conflicts over the regulation of new technologies are about.

Another aspect is that vested interests resist technologies that challenge their existing business model.

reason: One of the most interesting political battles you describe is the debate over wireless local area networks, or WiFi.

Rheingold: Telephone companies have paid governments around the world large amounts of money, upwards of $150 billion, for "3G" licenses, to create the "third generation" high-speed data networks to our devices. This is a big, top-down, very expensive infrastructure in which portions of the spectrum are auctioned off to the highest bidders, who have exclusive control of that part of the spectrum for their business purposes.

With WiFi technology, if you install a small card in your PC and another small base station from your Internet connection, you can project wireless Internet access to a small area. If a number of these, coming from the grassroots, link together, then you can have grassroots networks. So we've got broadband Inter-net access that doesn't rely on this 3G system. And it operates in the unlicensed band, so citizens don't need to have a license, like the 3G companies do, to operate.

So here we've got a conflict between a citizen-operated grassroots broadband system and a telco-operated top-down infrastructure, and the battle is being fought not on the level of technology but on the level of regulation. How is the FCC going to regulate the spectrum?

That is just one of several different emerging technologies that challenge the idea that spectrum should be regulated as property that is exclusively owned. This form of regulation is based on the kind of radio that we had in the 1920s. We now have radio that's much more intelligent in its devices than we had back then, and it's possible that we can treat the spectrum as a commons, as we have the Internet.

reason: What do you mean by a commons?

Rheingold: You don't have to buy a license to own a piece of the Internet. Anyone can send bits on the Internet. No one owns the whole thing. That doesn't mean that you can't have a capitalistic enterprise—it didn't stop Jerry Yang from becoming a billionaire or Google from becoming a billion-dollar business.

It's the difference between the highways and the railroads. You have to be a railroad company to run a train on a railroad, and the schedules are very, very closely coordinated from the top down so the trains don't run into each other. You don't have to own a highway to use it, and people determine how they get to their own destinations.

So part of the electromagnetic spectrum could be opened up to anyone who uses smart devices. The devices play nice with each other, the way routers do on the Internet—your transmitter will check and if this particular frequency is not being used for the next 50 billionths of a second by another device, it'll send its data out on it.

The open spectrum proposal is not that we change the way the entire spectrum is regulated, but that we open up more of the spectrum for experimentation with new devices that would treat it as a commons. So it would still be illegal to transmit on the television stations' frequencies, the emergency frequencies, and others.

reason: Another battleground you write about is privacy. What issues there are most important to you?

Rheingold: Well, nothing is more important than political liberty. If you don't have that, then the other issues are somewhat moot. Surveillance by people who want to sell you things is annoying. Surveillance by a state that wants to control your behavior is much more important.

People trade in their privacy for two things. One is convenience—it's convenient for Amazon to know things about my purchases, so it can recommend things to me. The other is security—when you go to an airport you submit yourself to a search, because you want to be secure from terrorism. Recently we've seen the state use technology to invade the privacy of citizens to a huge extent. People have accepted this, presumably because they think that they'll be more secure.

If encryption were easy to use and instantiated in devices, then people would have the opportunity to anonymize their transactions. There's definitely a user interface issue, because only the most sophisticated users are going to use anything that's complicated at all. If you had a privacy control that you can switch on and off, that would enable more users to take control.

reason: You also write about peer-to-peer journalism. One aspect you discuss more on your blog than in the book is this phenomenon of "moblogs."

Rheingold: Well, I predicted it in the book, but it hadn't happened yet. It's now happening so much that I'm considering not blogging it anymore.

reason: What's the difference between a moblog and an ordinary weblog?

Rheingold: A weblog is a site where anyone, from their computer, can post to the Web. A moblog is a mobile blog, so you can use your mobile device—a telephone, a video-equipped PDA [personal digital assistant]—to post to the Web. To publish what you witness and what you think from anywhere you are to everyone in the world—that's a big leap. Particularly now that we have the capability of publishing photos as well, and in some cases video.

The Rodney King video showed what happens when the cost of using a video camera drops to the point where you don't have to be a television professional to use one. Soon we'll see something happen in the world that's reported by one or more people from their mobile devices directly to the Internet before you see it on CNN or in The New York Times. Individuals have the ability to publicize events in a way that they have not had before, and that will ultimately affect the mass media, just as recently we saw the blogging about the Trent Lott affair having an effect on the political scene.

reason: A lot of the public seems to feel that after the dot-com crash, all technological change suddenly ended. Obviously, that isn't true. But to what extent is what you're writing about being restrained by recent developments in the marketplace?

Rheingold: It's important to note that the same thing happened with electricity and the railroads as well. There was a similar pattern: a world-changing discovery, and a lot of hype about it and utopian expectations and a financial bubble, and then a bust, with a lot of money being lost and a lot of businesses failing. And then, finally, some businesses picking up the pieces—not necessarily the ones that were the pioneers—and becoming very powerful. Ultimately, the changes were world-changing. So I think we can mistake the short-term events for the longer-term significance.

I think the financial losses in the high-tech and telecommunications and Internet sectors were so large that it's going to take several years to recover. But that does not mean that either technological progress or social innovation has stopped. Weblogging pretty much emerged as a social phenomenon after the Internet crash.

reason: A lot of people still associate the Whole Earth Catalog with the 1960s, even though the operation continues to this day. I was trying to think of ways that what you're writing about now is connected to what you were doing with Whole Earth, and the first thing that came to mind was the Catalog's credo, "Access to Tools."

Rheingold: Yes. In fact, it goes back a lot further than the '60s. It goes back to Emerson and "Self-Reliance." It's a pretty radically American idea: You don't have to rely on some distant institution, whether it's a government or a religion, to give you power and give meaning to your life if you have the tools and the knowledge and the freedom to do it for yourself.

In the '60s, it was about not relying on the particular culture and government of that time. But the general idea is not relying on any particular culture and government, when you have the power to do it yourself.