Cellphones change how people hang out - and protest

Howard Rheingold's first "aha" moment was early in 2000, in Tokyo.

On his visit, he noticed that everyone had a mobile phone, but most people were looking at the phone, not talking into it. As they walked along, they used their thumbs to type in text messages, says Mr. Rheingold, a technology trend spotter and cultural observer with several books to his credit.

The second moment came several months later, in Helsinki, when Rheingold observed three Finnish teens meet two adults. As they talked, one teenager looked at his phone, smiled, and showed it to his friends, who also smiled. But they didn't show it to the adults. Everyone kept talking as if it was nothing unusual.

"That's when I realized that some norm I didn't know about had permeated society," he says.

From those two experiences, Rheingold came up with the theory of "smart mobs" - the ability of groups to gather at a moment's notice, made possible by the proliferation of mobile communications. The phrase is also the title of his new book.

"Smart mobs" is an interesting choice of words because the term is both positive and threatening, as Rheingold wanted it to be. The man who foresaw the PC revolution in his 1985 book, "Tools for Thought," and then how the Internet could be used to create new kinds of communities in the 1993 book, "Virtual Communities," says this new form of communication will produce both good and bad consequences.

On the positive side, millions of Filipinos used cellular phones and text messaging starting in October 2000 to protest against the government of President Joseph Estrada, a collective protest that led to his downfall in February 2001. On the other hand, terrorist groups like Al Qaeda, or hate groups in countries such as Germany, have learned to use mobile communications to organize and also to avoid surveillance.

This potential for mobile organization will only grow as high-speed bandwidth becomes more available.

An obstacle to this development, he says, is if big business, having missed the boat on owning the first wave of the Internet, tries to take over new forms of "collective action." Rheingold says that would be a mistake.

The Internet is proof that entrepreneurs and capitalists can benefit from a scheme in which the common resource does not become the exclusive property of a company. For example, Rheingold says, the Internet didn't take off until the US government stepped in to rescind AT&T's rule against attaching devices to telephones.

Rheingold believes devices like mobile phones are catalysts for change. But if the ability of people to innovate "at the edges" is compromised by battles over who owns the technology, the future could be vastly different.

Yet even with the digital world spawning new forms of social and cultural interaction, Rheingold is not a rosy optimist. "Organized crime, terrorists, and people who want to sell you things," he says, are going to use the same medium you do to wreak destruction and intrude on your privacy."

With the Internet, he sees the scenario arising in which people misuse a common resource in their own interest and in so doing destroy the resource.

It doesn't have to happen, he says. The key elements to managing a collective technology include: "contracts, not laws; local control; and an architecture where people can spy on each other. In other words self-policing."

For better or worse, mobile communication is not going away. Even in the US, cities like Denver, Los Angeles, and Atlanta would "shut down if wireless was absent. These cities have already arranged their 'metabolism' around wireless," he says.

Rheingold is critical of utopian projections for technology, because he believes there is potential for a lot of misery. "Hence the name 'smart mobs,'" he says. "I wanted a little resonance of the 'lynch mob' in there. Because if we're not careful and if we don't pay attention to how these technologies develop, there may well be one."

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