Thursday, July 24, 2008

Reading :: Smart Mobs

Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution
By Howard Rheingold

I've been meaning to read Smart Mobs for a while. The last time I checked it out from the library, I left it at a bus stop. Fortunately, some good samaritan returned it to the library. So now I'm back at it.

Smart Mobs is a well known, widely cited book, and for good reason. Published in 2002, its predictions are generally dead on, making it surprisingly relevant even five years later (an immense time period in terms of mobile technologies).

Rheingold defines smart mobs in this way:
Smart mobs consist of people who act in concert even if they don't know each other. The people who make up smart mobs cooperate in ways never before possible because they carry devices that possess both communication and computing capabilities. Their mobile devices connect them with other information devices in the environment as well as with other people's telephones. (p.xii).

He goes on to describe several possible applications of mobile technologies, applications that have been realized or are being realized at present (xii). But Rheingold is less interested in the specific applications of technologies than he is in how these transform the possibilities of cooperation and communication, in turn spurring shifts in culture, society, and work. For instance, he observed that mobile technologies in Japan were already dictating fashion changes (p.3; as an aside, I predict that a new wave of smartphones and internet devices will prolong the fad of cargo pants) and mobile phones in Norway were allowing users to remain accessible to their peer group while simultaneously participating in other events (p.6). He also observed early trends that predicted the shift of mobile phones away from communication devices and towards a "remote control" for interacting with the world (p.11).

I was a little startled to see that Rheingold interviewed, among others, "Jyri Engestrom, a sociology student in his early twenties" (p.17). Engestrom later worked for Nokia before cofounding Jaiku, a service that flourished briefly before being acquired by Google last year. Engestrom is quoted describing a public space in terms of consumption, production, and exchange, in a phrase that could have been taken from one of his father Yjro's articles (p.17).

In any case, the book is easy to read and surprisingly fresh; I would recommend it over more contemporary work such as Shirky's Here Comes Everybody for people who are interested in the impact of mobile technologies.

The only disappointment I found was that in the last chapter, Rheingold turns to Foucault to discuss the "panoptic" possibilities of mobile technologies. Specifically, he worries that too much information about our mobile dealings will result in self-censorship and other ways of conforming due to pervasive surveillance. True, in some contexts and societies this will be the case. But Smart Mobs is stuffed with counterexamples, and I wanted Rheingold to explore further why these counterexamples occur. One reason, I think, is that mobile technologies (at least as they are currently configured) foster peer-to-peer connections that actually encourage violations of conformance by surfacing counterconformance across the network -- or more accurately, surface different centers and activities, exacerbating the tensions and contradictions across established and nascent activities.

I'm just thinking out loud here, but: In Bentham's panopticon, prisoners (theoretically) conformed because they knew they might be observed by the guards, who had the ability to enforce conformance. The uncertainty of whether they were being watched or not resulted in incorporating state-friendly actions into their every movement. In the police state of the Soviet Union we saw something similar, although citizens also developed "double consciousness" in reaction to the contradiction between pervasive surveillance and private activities (see Wertsch). In 1984, the protagonist similarly finds himself called out by the televised exercise leader for not exercising strenuously enough, an event that nicely illustrates the ambiguity of surveillance that results in the weaving of state intent into citizens' unconscious action.

But we move across different groups with different expectations. You might behave quite differently at your bowling alley, your church, and your home, for instance. When peer-to-peer connections are enabled, you might find yourself interacting in multiple networks simultaneously, and state power (at least in a relatively hands-off state such as the US) contends with power in these other intersecting activities. So countervailing knots form, from hobby groups to cryptography clubs to sex clubs. And the power of social opprobrium is loosened in any given knot, since other knots have different criteria and one can live across these knots. So we're seeing much freer discussions and diverse identifications, as well as fracturing of political organizations (e.g., the Reagan coalition is fracturing into libertarian-leaning conservatives, South Park conservatives, social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, small-government conservatives, and other groups that are beginning to form knots where they can more freely articulate viewpoints diverging from the Republican platform). Like the car, which encouraged the dissolution of stable communities and loosened stakes in neighborhoods, mobile technology is accellerating the shift toward such knots of interrelated activities with different expectations. Rheingold actually gives some examples of these, and I'd be interested in seeing a more fully theorized exploration of them.

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