Since the advent of the modern science fiction era, ubiquitous connectivity against a backdrop of smart and networked machines has been an essential part of every serious vision of the future.
Sure, we might live in that world now – where you can wake up and push a button on a universal remote control that puts the kettle on — but in truth, much of the institutions of the early 21st century still adhere to the strictures laid down as much as a century ago; powerful commercial interests still own the media (no matter what the technology), and increasingly use it for their own hidden political agenda.
As a Marxist would put it, we’re still at the mercy of a top-down information flow controlled and disseminated by an unseen managerial class.
But the future we’ve actually been waiting for might be here after all. For the first time, a network of information by, of and for the people is starting to look like a reality, now that social mobilisation and technology have met in the middle.
Rise of the Mob
So says author and futurist Howard Rheingold, whose latest book — Smart Mobs; The Next Social Revolution — is the result of inspiration that struck while in Tokyo in 2000 watching teenagers looking at their mobiles instead of talking into them (like the rest of the world was still doing).
It was — he realised — a revolution in the making. “It’s about collective action,” Rheingold says to Internet.au before jetting off on another whirlwind speaking engagement tour. “Collective action can take place in the face to face world, but the point is mobile communications and the Internet have made it possible for people to organize in new ways, with people they weren’t able to join before, in new places and at new paces.”
According to Rheingold and plenty of other influential writers and thinkers, the immediate connectivity the mobile phone offers (or whatever it will morph into in the near future, both in tandem with the Internet and as a conduit to it) will create a vast online world that’s more inextricably linked to the real world than ever before.
“You can point your device down the street and ask whether there’s a good Chinese restaurant in that direction,” Rheingold says, “ask what the newspaper critic says about it, see if any of your friends have eaten there, even see what people have said about the service in the last hour.”
Viral Marketing in Action
The person-to-person connectivity enacted in a smart mob holds the key to transforming information into action. Your friend sends you an SMS about something of interest to you, you send it to three of your friends you know will be interested, they in turn send it to three friends, and suddenly you and your social network are their own broadcast media with 100% target accuracy — a scenario that would have marketing executives drooling.
And such large-scale, immediate, person-to-person communication is a formidable force. Despite government information lockdown, news of the SARS epidemic streamed out of China thanks to the Internet and mobile phones.
If the world is a brain and we’re all synapses for information to pass through, the synapse is becoming a mass broadcaster in the face of the new immediacy of communications. As a network, we’ve becoming faster and more responsive.
The most literal example of the smart mob so far may be the flash mob (see sidebar). Stories from around the world tell of groups of people who suddenly burst into identical (often nonsensical) activity and just as quickly disperse to leave onlookers amused and perplexed.
Power to the People
If events in the connectivity age so far are anything to go by, the organisation of political action is very much in the hands of the masses; several world leaders have already learned the hard way to beware the peasant with mobile in hand.
When the Philippine parliament elected not to open an envelope containing evidence of President Estrada’s guilt in a corruption scandal in 2000, protests ensued that brought about his resignation – protests that were organized mostly via mobile phone messaging.
In 2002, Korea’s President Roh (then a candidate) enjoyed support among the young, wired population. Mass go-out-and-vote campaigns transmitted online and in SMS messages tipped the election in his favour.
And with one of the highest penetrations of mobile phone and Internet access per capita in the world, Australians are also learning to take their concerns mobile.
UTS-based counter-globalisation movement researcher James Arvanitakis relates a local example. “The day before the celebration of John Howard’s time in parliament, text messages went out to let people know there was going to be a peaceful protest to remind him that while he was sitting around celebrating, refugees are still being locked up,” he says.
“Before mobile phones, what you’d have to do is essentially leafleting. Someone would print them off and stand at train stations handing them out. It’s a radical departure from the traditional value of networks.”
The Dark Side
Of course, there are two sides of any coin. Coordination of both the September 2001 and September 2004 terrorist attacks is the US and Spain were carried out by smart mobs — the explosives aboard the Madrid train were even detonated using mobile phones.
And in an age where our privacy is so important to us it’s not only heavily debated but extensively legislated, do we really want mobile phones with GPS chips transmitting our whereabouts to anybody that has the authority to track us?
Gerrit Visser, Netherlands-based creator of the CoWorking Institute — an online project that looks at collaboration technologies, tools and social processes — is quick to jump to the defence of technology. “Technologies are not moral systems,” he believes, “so it’s not a matter of weighing up benefits and downsides. Any device can be misused.”
James Arvanitakis believes we should judge each technology on its merits — something we haven’t always taken the time to do. “We have a negotiated relationship with technology, it isn’t one way,” he says. “The Internet, for example, is continually under threat of being besieged by corporate interests. There’s always a risk [technology] can go backwards or be used negatively.
“In the 50s and 60s, any technological progress was seen as a good thing. Now there’s an increasing movement of people who think we should be wary of technology because some of it isn’t that great, like nuclear technology – which was supposed to end the energy crisis but obviously hasn’t.”
The New Media
But the rub about the new era of connectivity is this; will it represent the first true People’s Network? Who can say how a newly emboldened society with up-to-the-minute information constantly at its fingertips will change power structures, institutions and the economy (to say noting of the human sense of community)?
Arguments about the death of print are as old hat as those about TV killing off cinema and radio, but with so much information ripe for plucking when we need it, will there still be a need for the sort of rigid mass communications structure of the media age?
Do we still listen to advertisers and spin doctors glossing over the negatives, talking themselves up to deafening levels and hiding the fine print? The smart mob will have all its own informational networks, transmitted or broadcast quicker than an advertiser could ever reach them. Won’t that render entire industries obsolete?
“Not obsolete, but not dominant,” says Bryan Alexander, co-director of the Centre for Educational Technology, a school of Vermont’s Middlebury College, where teachers use technology to create effective learning environments.
“I suspect we’ll see traditional advertising as one form among many. Smart mob technologies afford opportunities for new forms of advertising. Location-sensitive information via devices like Bluetooth might see me bombarded by ads as I walk past commercial locations, a la Minority Report.”
Gerrit Visser of the CoWorking Institute agrees. “Old media is still a massive push medium, new media is more pull-focused,” he says. “If I know what I want, I’ll use a PDA with net access to get it, but if I don’t know something exists how can I look it up?”
And even if we do hold the power of information in our hands, we’re not broadcasters with our own satellite, studio or printing press …are we?
Well, consider the address book of your email program — a ready list of contacts that trust you and will listen to what you have to say.
And if you don’t think SMS is a broadcast medium, think again. As voice over IP (VOIP — the technology of sending voice signals as Internet data traffic) phone technology moves out of testing phase, goes commercial and gets cheaper, the ability to type an SMS message into a website and send it to multiple mobile numbers is an easy add-on for most service providers.
Used in November 2003 in the lead up to the Sydney noWTO protests, Sydney Indymedia and Cat@lyst (Community Activist Technology) offered a service called the Short Message Unified Gateway, which broadcast updates on venues, contacts and activities to users who’d subscribed to the service just by sending an SMS. Then, by sending a text message preceded by the letters SMUG, their SMS messages went to everyone on the list.
Commercial vs. Civic Space
In her 2000 book No Logo, Naomi Klein argues that what humanity is missing today is a true public forum – what she equated to the village green or town square of yesteryear — where citizens could collect and debate unhindered by commercial interests.
Today, Klein argued, communities collect in commercial spaces like shopping malls. What difference does it make, you might ask? Not much until you hear about the experiences of people who’ve tried to hand out leaflets on social or political discourse in shopping centres and are swooped upon by security guards.
So will the virtual village green of online and mobile networks mark a return to the days of free and open discourse about political concerns?
To Howard Rheingold, that world is gone forever, but the spirit is still there if only people take hold of it. “I don’t think we’ll ever see a return to a previous way of life, but I believe the Internet has the potential to revitalise the public sphere,” he says.
The continued encroachment of commercial interests on public space might even be helping to drive the smart mob, says James Arvanitakis; “The more room for political action is closed, the more we take away strip malls and replace them with shopping malls you can’t hand out leaflets in, the more these virtual communities or cultural commons will appear.”
The concept of a commons is one of the fiercest battles of the modern era. Before we could swap files over the Internet, record companies knew there was no way of getting music apart from paying them a percentage of every sale at a music store. Copyright had little to do with the consumer.
But the Internet age has sparked off a new race to patent, commodify or copyright everything — even human genes. Everyone from Battle of Seattle labour movements to computer hackers have declared war over what’s off limits to commercial interests, and Arvanitakis doesn’t think it’ll be very cut and dried.
“To say one side or the other is going to ‘win’ is much too simple an analysis,” he thinks. “If we’ve learnt one thing about capitalism, it’s robust. While many of us are working to open non-commercial spaces — commons such as file sharing — more of these spaces are being closed of in this dance of commodification. Capitulation from big business is unlikely.”
But surely those who flout the law by sharing music files as a sort of protest against The System are forgetting one thing (no matter how much music publishers supposedly rip artists off); without the profits record sales generate, they won’t make music any more.
Nothing happens for free, so isn’t ubiquitous copyright a cornerstone of all this connectivity? Not, according to Arvanitakis again, when there’s more to the Smart Mob than commerce.
“Fear that private property will collapse is what drives a great deal of the militant responses by corporations and governments,” he says. “Not many people want to see the end of ownership, but a better balance that would promote open exchange of ideas, knowledge and intellect rather than just commercial transactions.”
There’s something else to consider here; in one way, mobile phones and the Internet are just other media like TV, cinema or a newspaper; the only differences are the interactivity and ability of anyone to be a broadcaster or publisher.
There’s already been controversy in the mobile phone industry about SMS advertising, and much of today’s World Wide Web can be written off as just more glossy corporate PR.
Couldn’t mobile connectivity end up just like TV — devoid of the spirit of public discourse it was invented for and crammed with escapist infotainment?
In his work as founder and convenor of the Sydney-based Commons Institute, that’s exactly the sort of question James Arvanitakis grapples with.
“Complete connectivity is a double edged sword. It can be used in activist and justice movements, but it’s just as likely to be used to overwhelm and enclose — like allowing advertisers to invade our private lives. It’s a danger we need to be constantly vigilant against.
“The community — including politicians — has to draw a line in the sand and say that there are spaces that should never be commodified. It’s quite simple to place a patent or claim intellectual property, it should be just as simple to register something as a public good — a commons.”
Still a Mob?
But just like it was during the early days of the telephone, telegraph and printing press, only one thing will promote the next social revolution people like Howard Rheingold believe is coming. People are people; new gadgets will not make us better people (as terrorists the world over have shown), and making us politically inclined will take more than a smart phone.
But those who are active or aware — not just of political issues but the power of information in the palm of your hand – will drive the future of communications. “If you’re addicted to email,” Rheingold says, “wait until you find out you can check it on the train, waiting in line at the bank or sitting in the airport waiting for your flight.”
Of course, then there’s the possibility that eye contact with strangers will be a thing of the past as everyone walks around staring at their mobile…
Flash mobbing began a little over 18 months ago, established by an anonymous New Yorker known only as ‘Bill’, when 100 people marched into a Macy’s department store asking for a ‘love rug’. Flash mobbing has since sprung up all over the world, including Australia.
Instructions are circulated over the Internet or by mobile to collect at a certain place to receive instructions for your mob — anything from spontaneously sitting in lines on the Opera House steps to forming a lunch hour conga line.
Tempest Waters, who works as a consultant in the packaging industry and describes herself as a child of the sixties, seemed bemused when I asked her what the appeal was. “Goodness! What doesn’t appeal?” says Waters, who ‘flashes’ every two or three weeks.
“We laugh for whole city blocks after an event. One woman burst into applause as we left. Another [mobber] said it was the most empowering thing she’s ever done. One of our regulars is in her late 50’s and claims it’s the best exercise she gets all week. Also, a benefit we hadn’t expected is that we’ve all made friends doing this, people with whom you have nothing in common except for mobbing.”
As a social movement, flash mobbing has caught on. As well as reports of impulsive dancing on London train stations during peak hour and images of a group of people pointing into the sky shouting ‘What’s that?’ June 19 2004 marked the day of the first Global Flashmob.
People from Helsinki to Wellington and everywhere in between collected into groups to carry out instructions that were circulated on flash mob websites, and the sense of camaraderie reported in online forums is strangely infectious in our individualised world.
But do a bunch of people barking like dogs (as they did at an early Sydney flash mob outside Town Hall) mean we’re on the cusp of a social revolution? To Howard Rheingold, it’s symptomatic of a bigger picture. Speaking again to the ABC; “These are just people flexing their abilities to self-organise collective action,” he thinks. “Whether it’s political action or frivolous entertainment, they’re practicing. Imagine the skills they’ll have to organise political action 10 or 15 years from now?”
Big Brother Gone Small?
Currently in trials across the world are radio frequency identification tags. RFID tags are microchips that can contain all the information usually referenced by (for example) a barcode.
If you’re considering a new brand of washing powder – the theory goes – you can point your mobile phone or other handheld device at the RFID tag and access a world of information about it.
And in unlocking the power of applications like websites for mobile phones, you can even find out stuff the product’s maker might not want you to know. Did they lobby against pollution controls in the third world? Is their chairman embroiled in a real estate scandal? It’s all there in that little chip.
Smart Mobs in Action
A Perth based forum for web designers and programmers to swap tips, gossip, and debate about the collective direction of their industry.
A downloadable screensaver, used by millions around the world, that crunches data from radio telescopes searching for extraterrestrial life for the SETI Institute.
A ready made smart mob template, this free online services lets you track down people of like mind for any project, action or idea and start a group to enact it — all over the web.
Currently in San Francisco and New York but planned for implementation across the US, simply tell the WhoAt service where you are and it’ll report to you via mobile phone or PDA where you’ve got friends, loved one or interested parties nearby.
An online tool that helps you get your flash mob set up from scratch by use of the ‘swarming engine’.
The People’s Network
This story was devised, interviews conducted and research compiled over mobile and fixed-line phone, email, posts to online forums & email mailing lists and SMS — with respondents in Sydney, Perth, the United States, Berlin, Amsterdam and St Petersburg.