Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

Howard Rheingold, one of my mentors, friend, and former editor of the Whole Earth Review who has written some of my favorite books about the mind and thinking recently writes books about "the next big thing" in technology starting with Virtual Reality, Virtual Communties and now Smart Mobs.

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? HOWARD RHEINGOLD: SMART MOBS [7.16.02]
John Brockman, literary agent extraordinaire and editor and publisher of Edge writes about Howard's new book. (John Brockman is also the sponsor of the Billionaire's Dinner)
Introduction In 1999 and 2000, Howard Rheingold started noticing people using mobile media in novel ways. In Tokyo, he accompanied flocks of teenagers as they converged on public places, coordinated by text messages. In Helsinki, he joined like-minded Finns who share the same downtown physical clubhouse, virtual community, and mobile-messaging media. He learned that the demonstrators in the 1999 anti-WTO protests used dynamically updated websites, cell-phones, and "swarming" tactics in the "battle of Seattle," and that a million Filipino citizens toppled President Estrada in 2000 through public demonstrations organized by salvos of text messages. Drivers in the UK used mobile communications to spontaneously self organize demonstrations against rising petrol prices. He began to see how these events were connected. He calls these new uses of mobile media "smart mobs." For nearly two years, Rheingold visited hotspots around the world where smart mob technologies and societies were erupting. He had some idea of how to look for early signs of momentous changes, having chronicled and forecast the PC revolution in 1985 and the Internet explosion in 1993. He is now sees a third wave of change underway in the first decade of the 21st century, as the combination of mobile communication and the Internet makes it possible for people to cooperate in ways never before possible. — JB
Howard's been working on this book for awhile and this topic is perfect for Howard and perfect timing for us. It's amazing considering how much fieldwork Howard does, how Howard is always there at the right place at the right time. But I'm sure it's not luck. ;-) I think that people have all over-estimated the short term impact of the Net, but the issues that Howard discusses are many of the core issues that the Net combined with mobile communications will impact. These issues change the face of media and communications, which will change the whole notion of the "public." This shift will finally change the balance of power in economy, politics and society more and more to the people. (I hope. ;-) )


Hi Joi! Thanks for the great plug! Thought you and your readers might appreciate this: I got a blurb from (Sir) Arthur C. Clarke, author of 2001, etc:

"I congratulate Howard Rheingold on his very thorough summary of one of the greatest transformations of human society -- perhaps even more profound than the development of writing."

I check in here every day, so I'll be happy to engage any of your readers who might have questions -- to the degree that I am able to fit it into my schedule while I proofread the book.


I'm looking forward to reading the book when it comes out. In the meantime, I have a question for you. Do the anti-globalization protesters with whom you interacted think much about the idea that they're using high-technology tools (cell phones, the Internet, etc.) made possible (partly or even mostly) by multinational firms to fight the expansion of those very firms? If they do think about it, how do they see it? Ironic? Amusing? Appropriate?

Hi Frank --

I didn't directly interview anti-globalization protesters. However, one of the things I learned from my research that surprised me was the extent to which mobile phones are "the poor person's Internet" in many parts of the world. One in eight people in Namibia have mobile telephones, for example. And people like fishermen off the coast of India receive text messages about which ports are better to sell their fish. If you find out anything about the answer to your question, I'm interested in finding out. Of course, one of the key organizing institutions around anti-globalization protests are the independent media centers, which also make use of high-tech communication media.

I'm not going to bash ALL anti-globalization folks, but when I was at the World Economic Forum in New York, I was interviewed by a left-wing Swiss newspaper reporter who was reporting on the protesters. He said that it was difficult to figure out what they were protesting and he thought that most of them would be happy if the were inside the fences instead of outside. I think "globalization" is a very difficult word to protest or discuss except at the very-marco-economic level. Like "are the rich getting richer?" I saw a report published, probably by rich people, showing that in fact the spread was getting smaller. I guess the other issues are explotiation of poor countries, loss of local cultures, global policing, etc. I guess what I'm trying to say is that the issues are so complex that it anti-globalization is much more difficult to protest than say a war, or the actions of a specific company on a specific rainforest. So I think anti-globalization will continue to gain momentum among those people who feel abused by those in power, but that because of the complexity and the totally different reasons people are protesting, it will be difficult to guide.

So I think the movement is riddled with exactly the kind of contradictions like the fact they they all use products made by multi-nationals. I think the examples Howard points out are good examples of how poor people are using technology.

I think the one of the biggest issues in globalization was access to information and ability to publish and in the context of Smart Mobs, I think that transforming the way we communicate will have an immense impact on the ability to keep cultural diversity and prevent those in power from controlling our minds.

I don't pose as an expert on globalization, but my personal opinion is that the excesses worth protesting have to do with the secret decisions made regarding environmental regulations, labor laws, and other sovereign matters that are overruled by a small group whose deliberations are not secret and whose constituents are the largest companies in the world -- decisions that can overrule national laws and even other treaties. However, I have to agree that anti-globalization is too broad to be a coherent political movement, particularly in light of a more nuanced view that takes into account the way some aspects of globalization are welcomed by people who aren't rich by any means.

A brief excerpt from the book that might be relevant regarding this aaspect of globalization:

At around the same time I was carrying on my own informal investigation, Motorola commissioned UK-based writer Dr. Sadie Plant to conduct a study "On The Mobile: The Effects of Mobile Telephones on Social and Individual life." Plant's research took her to Tokyo, Beijing, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Peshawar, Dubai, London, Birmingham and Chicago. She reported that in some cases, people use the mobile to maintain family relationships; young people who go off to work in cities can stay in touch with their rural relatives, and families scattered around the world. In other cases, Plant reports that young people maintain relationships with friends their parents would disapprove. Afghans in Pakistan were horrified by the ease with which young Moslem boys and girls, who would never have been allowed to be alone together, can now participate in virtual social relationships via mobile phone. Everywhere she traveled, Plant collected tales of how mobile telephones and texting were changing ways of life in unexpected ways:

"On a wooden ship moored in Dubai's busy creek, a Somali trader dozes in the shade of a tarpaulin sheet. He wakes to the opening bars of Jingle Bells. "Hallo? Aiwa?a?iwa?K." The deal is done. This trader, Mohammed, exports small electrical goods, including mobile phones, to East Africa. "It's my livelihood," he says of the mobile phone. "No mobile, no business." It multiplies his opportunities to make contacts and do deals as he moves between cities and ports, and the short, instantaneous messages and calls to which the mobile lends itself are perfectly suited to the small and immediate transactions in which he is engaged. He now has access to intelligence about the movements of goods, ships, competitors and markets. Information that was once way beyond his reach is now at his fingertips."

"In remote parts of several developing countries, including Swaziland, Somalia and the Cote d'Ivoire, the mobile is being introduced in the form of payphone shops in villages which have never had land-lines. In rural Bangladesh, these shops, and the women who run them, have become new focal points in the community."

Thanks Howard. This is interesting.

I also agree with you that there is an issue with the level of power large multi-nationals have over poor countries... But I wonder if this is increasing or decreasing? (Sorry if this question sounds ignorant.) It is becoming cheaper and cheaper for people to organize and stand up against human rights and other violations and it seems to me that this sort of thing has been going on for a long time.

There's a new book about the evils of globalization from one of its architects, Joseph Stiglitz, who was in the Clinton administration and won the 2001 Nobel for economics. I think the title is "Globalization and its Discontents." It's on my list of books to read, but since the stack of books I'm reading now is already eight inches high, I thought I'd wait a while. The review I read of Stiglitz suggested that the problems with IMF, WTO and other institutions that are the targets of anti-globalization protests are exactly the same problems that are surfacing with the way Enron, Worldcom, Global Crossing, etc. were audited and (not) regulated: lack of transparency, insiders to game the market, at the expense of large numbers of smaller investors.

Mostly, I'm reading books about cooperation right now. Are there cooperative corporations in Japan? Over 700 million people in the world belong to coops, which some believe to be a good alternative to free-market capitalism and centralized-planning socialism. I don't know much about it right now.

Just ordered the book for my stack of books to read as well. Thanks for the pointer Howard.

I've been interested in Co-ops as well. I guess my biggest question is how people are incentivized to work hard and how leadership and governance work in co-ops. My experience with co-ops is that it is hard to get creative people to work hard. Having said that, I think that co-ops started with vision can be great. I think that many co-ops are started just to be cheaper, which is fine, but not much of a vision.

The only great co-op that I currently interact with is called "Aino" and it is a very old co-op of farmers who grow organic vegetables and wanted to make good food for their grandchildren. I know they are suffering in the current economic environment, but their vegetables and eggs are so good that we can't eat grocery vegetables anymore. I think that co-ops are usually better than government agencies, so maybe that's a way to find them. Find areas dominated by big government agencies and look for high quality alternatives...

I don't know anything about coops now, but I'm just starting my research.

As far as I know, this is the first blog to note this -- an article on Smart Mobs in today's New York Times:

This article was metioned above. It's available online as a pdf file. Very interesting psychological analyse of mobile phone use by young people.

On The Mobile: The Effects of Mobile Telephones on Social and Individual life..

I think co-ops are a good idea

Willem, I used On the Mobile as one of my sources, and interviewed Sadie Plant by telephone. Although this study was funded by a mobile equipment provider, Plant is a scholar of integrity, so I trust her findings.

I agree with Joichi

it makes sense to me anyway