Smart Mobs - interesting blast from the past
If you are interested ideas about computer supported collaborative work (CSCW) and what might be happeningh with smart technologies in everyone's pocket, have a look at Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution by Howard Rheingold. I have been aware of this book ever since it came out, but this is the first time I've read it. Reading it for the first time nine years after it was originally published is an interesting study in what is still the same, what has changed, and what has not yet happened in his vision of people using technology to build upon how they get things done together. Much of the material and many of the ideas here were familiar from my own experience and research, and I enjoyed the combination in this context.
What is a smart mob? The classic image of the "smart mob" is the mobile-enbabled gathering of people in a public space - frequently in a protest. But in Rheingold's world, it isn't just a mob for the sake of a mob. They are gathering for a purpose, and they are using the technologies around them to make them smarter, faster, better (a la The Six Million Dollar Man). The "mob" gathers to get things done. Sure, they might be protesting, but they might also be a group of people who to gather to complete a project and then disband and move onto the next activity.
Rheingold's writing style is what I've decided to call a "research adventure." He recounts unusual details about meeting people or having an epiphany about a given topic, coupled with heavily-footnoted discussion - to the point that quotations have embedded references. This makes the reading somewhat quirky: there are sections that feel breezy that then pile into a slog of research and references that require more careful reading.
Rheingold harnesses ideas from many different directions and fields: collaboration, public goods (commons), portable computing, wearable computing, always-on internet connectivity, computer history, networks, philosophy, sociology, and probably several other elements I've forgotten. I enjoyed the sense of curiosity and joy in discovery in his "research adventure." He also seemed to get many things right in the direction ideas have taken society with how we use technology (and how the powers-that-be have responded).
Rheingold is very clearly a fan and positive thinker - even with a final chapter that contains a number of concerns where things could go wrong. And for the most part, his positive view seems to have born out. There are elements of immersive and wearable computing that haven't really reached the mainstream, and the ongoing debates about net neutrality are here already. He also quoted discussions with Cory Doctorow that sounded like they were part of Doctorow's techno-future stories Little Brother and Makers in terms of what could / will happen in the future. (I've read these recently, so the connections are fresh in my mind.)
I really liked how the final paragraph tied together what he discussed:
Over the next few years, will nascent smart mobs be neutralized into passive, if mobile, consumers of another centrally controlled mass medium? Or will an innovation commons flourish, in which a large number of consumers also have the power to produce? The convergence of smart mob technologies in inevitable. The way we choose to use these technologies and the way governments will allow us to use them are very much in question. Technologies of cooperation, or the ultimate disninfotainment apparatus? The next several years are a crucial and unusually malleable interregnum. Especially in this interval before the new media sphere settles into its final shape, what we know and what we do matters.
Previous entry: Communication failure - oops
Next entry: Classic paper on why technologies fail