Rheingold, Howard

Howard Rheingold is one of the world's foremost authorities on the social implications of technology. Over the past twenty years he has traveled around the world, observing and writing about emerging trends in computing, communications, and culture. One of the creators and former founding executive editor of HotWired, he has served as editor of The Whole Earth Catalog, editor-in-chief of The Millennium Whole Earth Catalog, and on-line host for The Well. The author of several books, including The Virtual Community, Virtual Reality, and Tools for Thought, he lives in Mill Valley, California.

tompeters.com asks …

What are smart mobs?

HR: Smart mobs is a condensed term for new kinds of collective action that people can take as a result of having the use of mobile communication technologies and pervasive computing technologies. The idea is that more and more people in the world carry with them devices that are no longer just telephones. They are means of communicating with groups, including people you may not know but with whom you share a common interest or common goal. I used a few examples of really smart mobs. I think it’s important to know that I’m talking about a trend which I foresee emerging as the devices we carry evolve. So the examples I use are primitive ones.

For example, the Philippine demonstrations that brought down President Estrada were mobilized very, very quickly through non-official channels by Filipinos forwarding text messages to everyone in their address books. There was a fundamental difference there between that and the plain, unassisted telephone. And that is the ability for it to act as a kind of viable medium for propagating messages through social networks.

I had reports from people in Venezuela that similar things happened in Caracas. There were the official demonstrations for the official coup that were advertised on television and radio. There were the unofficial demonstrations and the counter-coup that were organized through email and cell phone and text messaging. So it has to do with grass roots communications, but unlike virtual communities, these have to do with mobilizing people to act in the physical world.

And to act spontaneously?

HR: Right.

So I hear about some protest that’s going to take place downtown in my city. I don’t know exactly where it’s going to be but I head in the general direction and at some point someone sends me a text message on my cell phone that tells me where to be when?

HR: That’s right. And keep in mind that increasingly these devices are going to know where they are. They’re going to have GPS and other methods of determining location within them. So location awareness becomes a part of this equation. I had a chapter, for example, on information in places—something that’s entirely possible with technology that exists today—where you can point your telephone down the street and ask it “where are good Chinese restaurants that my friends recommend?”

The infrastructure for making that available everywhere is yet to be built, but the technology for doing it is here today. Or, for example, to leave a digital note saying, “I was here but you didn’t show up. I’ve moved on to this location,” or “This restaurant used to be good, but it hasn’t been good lately.” Or point your device at a book and find out what the New York Times thinks about it or your friends or your reading club.

You write that the phone begins to serve as a remote control for your life.

HR: Yes. And that really has two meanings. One is that you use it to coordinate your activities more and more and not necessarily by making voice calls. But also because increasingly, there are going to be more and more devices in the environment that you can talk to, that your device can communicate with. That’s the pervasive computing part of it.

This is the big joker in the deck. Nobody really knows what all the emergent effects are of having chips everywhere that have wireless communication capabilities. I think wearable computers are certainly going to enter into this.

We’re already seeing legislative issues over this global positioning system within cell phones. It brings us into the loss of privacy issue in a way I can’t even imagine.

HR: Right. Well, you know that the U.S. government—I think it’s the FCC—has mandated that all cell phones must have location capabilities by 2006. They say this is for emergency services. But of course, there are a lot of surveillance capabilities in that.

You don’t even need GPS to locate a cell phone, of course. Most people don’t know that they don’t even have to make a call for their cell phones to be located. When your cell phone is on, it is sending signals out to the network.

Pinging the network?

HR: Yes, pinging. So that the network knows where to find it. Your cell phone wouldn’t work unless that happens.

I noted in the book that after September 11th, the British mobile carrier Virgin admitted that they had saved the records of the location and the number of every cell phone call that had been made in the U.K. for two years. When we’re talking about surveillance, this goes quite far beyond what Orwell saw. This is a collection of data that’s way beyond someone just speaking at you and seeing what you’re doing.

Clearly this technology will make its way into a crime thriller in which a murderer will be tracked down based on tracking the location of his cell phone.

HR: Think of what this does to adultery. People are going to know where other people’s devices are. Now, there’s an interesting story about that. I interviewed the late Mark Weiser of Xerox PARC about what he called ubiquitous computing. They had what they called active badges that researchers carried around with them, and the badges let other researchers know where they were in the lab. And they were quite aware of the surveillance capabilities of this. I asked him, “Do people use this a lot? Can you know where everyone is?” He said, “Well, you know where their devices are.” Which implied that people are always going to find a way to undo what is being done to them. If they can leave their device in the office while they’re actually at a motel having a tryst, or whatever, they will do that.

You’ll have shadow devices that you keep with you that would get dinged from your actual device.

HR: Yes. And I think this is true of state sponsored surveillance as well. I think one of the themes of the book is that every time there is a major technology, particularly a communication technology, the people who design it and the people who deploy it and sell it and regulate it have no idea about how people are going to appropriate that technology for their own uses.

There has not been a great deal of success or a great deal of public support for defense of civil liberties in the face of technological intrusion, particularly those that are cloaked under the brand of national security.

That becomes unpatriotic at the moment.

HR: Not only that, but in California they’re having a hell of a time trying to pass a law that would prevent people’s banks from selling their private financial information to people who want to sell things to them. The financial institutions have spent millions of dollars lobbying for this, and it’s been defeated three times, even though a lot of people, some say 80 to 90 percent of people, would like to have an opt-in system rather than an opt-out system. So the whole issue of privacy and its intrusion by technologies and protection in legislation regulation is quite muddy these days.

Which reminds me of that statistic about how a typical urbanite is caught on video camera 300 times a day.

HR: A day, yes. And now, of course, it’s in the primitive stages, but a company called Visionics is developing pattern recognition software that can take those images from those video cameras, match them up against a database of facial features and identify specific individuals. But it isn’t working too well right now. Give it a few years. It will work better. A lot of the last chapter has to do with the privacy implications and what that means for political freedoms. I want to emphasize that I used the term smart mobs, which is a little bit scary, to indicate that some beneficial effects will emerge, and some destructive effects will emerge from this technology. It’s not a utopia or a panacea. I think we saw with the Internet that there was much more hype and authentic reporting of positive benefits than there were good warnings about destructive side effects. There are a lot of scary warnings.

Yes. Although in a way, it’s still too young to really figure that out yet.

HR: That’s right. That’s why I’m trying to lay out what the landscape is, so it will give people some means of thinking about it. You know, for example, all of the goodies that people demand from a semi-welfare state, healthcare, housing, are things that require the kind of surveillance capabilities, or at least the tracking capabilities, that a totalitarian state requires as well. These things have two edges, always.

Are there any generational issues at work here? Are young kids adopting technologies without thinking about those “totalitarian state” side effects? Maybe many of them are not even aware of what a totalitarian state is?

HR: I was thinking of the generational differences in adoption and appropriation of the technologies, which is pretty clear. I won’t pretend to be an expert on the question of how politically aware young people are around the world. But around this ability to send text messages using a telephone, it’s clear that that ability is not sweeping America. I explained that there are some reasons why it isn’t. Outside the U.S., it’s cheaper to send text than to make a voice call, for instance. There are a hundred billion text messages sent every month worldwide. It certainly has swept Japan, the Philippines, Thailand, and the Nordic countries.

Why isn’t this catching on in the U.S?

HR: You have to start with the cluelessness of the telecommunications operators. Unlike the Europeans who got together on the GSM standard, the competing American operators developed competing technical standards. So if you have a phone from one carrier, you can’t send a text message to your friend whose operator is a different brand.

Number one, that’s important. Number two, text messaging took off around the world because it was less expensive to send text message than to make a voice call. And because the sender would pay for it. That was not the pricing policy when text messaging was first introduced into the U.S. So why bother from the consumer point of view?

And thirdly, it really took off among 16-year-olds in Tokyo and Helsinki and Manila and spread to the general population from there. The U.S. carriers aimed it at 32-year-old technology-adept executives. They didn’t cultivate third parties the way that the Japanese did, provide different services for people that they can get through this and that the Europeans did. There are a lot of fundamental mistakes that the American markets made.

However, the jury is still out on whether this is a cultural phenomenon. The point has been made that a lot of Japanese spend a lot of their time on the train and the subway, and a lot of Americans spend their time in automobiles. But I wouldn’t discount a lot of people in New York and Boston and Chicago who spend their time on trains as well, and France, Stockholm, and Helsinki, too.

Or maybe the Japanese will succeed with this technology the way they did with automobiles in the 1970s and electronics in the 1980s. Maybe America has just dropped the ball on this. We’ll see.

There’s a quote that you actually mentioned twice; once early on and then once in the concluding chapter. It’s from an Amish gentleman who’s got a small workshop he’s working out of. He says, “It’s not how we use the technology that concerns us. We’re also concerned about what kind of people we become when we use it.” Why does that mean so much to you?

HR: I think it’s important to think critically about technologies. I am an enthusiast. I use technologies and they have a place in my life and I think that there’s a great empowering aspect to the Internet and for mobile phones for ordinary people. But I think certainly over the last 10 years we’ve learned that our lives are not necessarily always better when we’ve gotten new technologies. There was a point at which the image of someone sitting at the beach with their laptop and their cell phone was an image of freedom. I’d say for a lot of people, that’s now become an image of never being able to get away from work.

It’s important to understand nuances and think in shades of gray. It’s not either black or white. It’s how are we going to regulate this technology in terms of how we use it in our life. Not will there be a law about it, but what decisions am I going to make? Am I going to answer the phone when I’m talking to someone face to face? Am I going to turn my cell phone off when I go into a movie theater? A lot of this is under the control of the individual and requires some critical thinking.

As we have devices that are always on and always have us in touch, what does that do to our lives, and what kind of people are we becoming? I think that’s an important question to ask.

So your feeling then is that enough people aren’t thinking about those issues enough.

HR: I think you can just see by the reckless way people use voice telephony in automobiles that there’s a lot of not thinking about how your use of technology affects other people. You had mentioned before about people just not being technically sophisticated, it’s really impossible to be technically sophisticated about everything that comes along. However, if we’re looking at an era where your device is not just the telephone, but it’s an always-on Internet connection and it knows where you are, maybe it’s a wearable device, well those devices have the capability of broadcasting a lot of information, not only where you are but what your interests are and who your friends are and who you talk to.

There will be devices in the environment that can pick up that information. So the question is, should the designer of those devices have an on and off switch so that you can turn off the capability of others to spy on you? I think most people would agree that yes, there should be an on and off switch. Then that becomes a technical question. Should the default be on or off? If the default is on, we know a lot of people aren’t going to figure out that they need to turn it off if they don’t want to tell everyone in the world about what they’re doing.

So there’s a connection between complexity of technologies, their effects on our lives, and public understanding of it. Design of interface. The technical and the social are becoming much more closely intertwined.

That reminds me of sitting at the symphony years ago and at 8 p.m. everyone’s watches started beeping and half the folks didn’t know how to turn them off. Eventually they all figured out how to turn everything off before the performance began. And now it seems we’re at that point with cell phones. People are understanding that they should turn off their phones before going into the movie theater. Of course, all these places also have something running on screen reminding people to shut down their machines. And all the newspapers have published articles in which people describe their most obnoxious public cell phone experience.

So some new technology comes along and we start figuring out how to deal with it, particularly in matters of public spaces. We learn through the media or just from other people’s reactions. Think about smokers. They were getting the stare or the hand wave from other diners long before actual laws prohibiting smoking were established.

HR: Well, in some parts of the world. You can still smoke in a restaurant in Paris and bring your dog for that matter. But I think the issue you raised is an important one. Norms about how people use communication technologies spread and changed people’s habits. They tend to spread rather more slowly than the technologies do. There’s always a kind of a social gap. There is some evidence, particularly with mobile phones, that as a society becomes more used to a technology, people become more sophisticated in their use of it.

But that leaves us the issue of what is happening to our notion of public places with people talking to people who are not in that place. You no longer assume somebody’s crazy if they’re talking to themselves as they’re walking down the street. They might be talking on their telephone.

I still find that unsettling.

HR: You and a lot of other people. It bothers people for a few reasons. It bothers people that people have taken what is a private moment and put it in a public place. When I’m sitting on the subway car, I don’t want to hear you arguing with your wife. It bothers people in the sense that we have established a set of unwritten and largely unspoken norms about how we act in public and this is changing it. Nobody wrote a rule that no one talks on elevators or makes eye contact, it just happened. It was a reaction to these new metropolises with these giant buildings that put all these strangers together.

One very interesting comment in your book came from a young Japanese person who said that if a friend sent him text messages from some party he wasn’t physically attending, he still felt as if he was there, just because he was getting messages. It seems to me that there’s something huge in that comment.

HR: Yes, it is a huge comment, because I think it indicates a generational norm that’s changed dramatically. It used to be, and it still is among older people, that I’m going to meet you at 5th and Main at 7:00. And if you’re not at 5th and Main by 7:20, you’re late and you’re rude. Apparently that norm has changed among groups of teenagers. In places like Finland, among adults, you don’t say, “I’m going to meet you at 7:00 at 5th and Main.” You say, “I’m going to meet you after work or before dinner downtown,” and then you negotiate that. Sometimes whole groups of kids negotiate and then suddenly they all show up at a fast food place. They call it flocking or swarming behavior. And that’s an example of collective action. It’s not a political protest, it’s just a social gathering.

There’s a hotel I usually stay at in Stockholm and the bar/restaurant there is a popular meeting place. One time they were having a private party and to get in you had to show the text message invite on your telephone.

The whole thing was organized by four people who sent out invitations by text to everyone in their telephone address books. So it’s this merging of social networks, communication networks, and places that causes this kind of collective action, the swarming or flocking behavior to happen.

If you’re present in your social network, you’re considered present. Researchers in Norway have called this the softening of time. Time is no longer the precise, crisp “if you’re not there you’re rude” agreement. It’s softer than it used to be. That’s a pretty major change.

I’d also point out that in Japan, this has caused a generational difference between the older folks and the younger folks. The use of the technology has certainly spread to everyone. But it used to be that parents would know who their kids’ friends were because they would have to call the land-line and talk to them. Japanese homes are very small; people don’t entertain there socially. They meet outside to entertain. Japanese teenagers’ lives are pretty regimented. You can’t really have a private conversation at home. Suddenly, it became cheaper for teenagers to have a cell phone than a land-line. They could communicate with their friends without their parents knowing about it.

As a result, parents no longer know who their kids’ friends are. Which has happened pretty dramatically in the last five to ten years.

Another aspect of this new technology that’s creating a gap between generations is the ability that kids have to write out messages with their thumbs while the cell phone is in their pocket or their school desk. Adults are not so adept at that.

I read somewhere recently that kids are now using their thumbs to ring a doorbell rather than using their index fingers.

HR: Right. Think about the interface to hand-held devices. The thumb has already won. Those PDAs that require you to hold it in one hand while using a stylus in the other just won’t compete with something that can be operated with one hand.

Particularly if you want to drive at the same time.

HR: Yes, there’s something else I’d like to bring up, which is kind of an undercurrent here. The leading edge of these things we’re talking about is for the most part not in the U.S. The U.S. for the first time since Japan came up with better automobiles or the Walkman is looking like a technological backwater. And if the way regulation is going these days continues, we may end up being a technological backwater in a big way since other countries have different regulatory infrastructures and the will to allow different technologies to emerge.

There’s been a great deal of fear, uncertainty, and doubt about spectrum regulations and intellectual properties. It’s the business of digital rights management and the business of selling pieces of the spectrum to the highest bidder so that they can use it without interference. These are really based on obsolete technologies and vested interests who don’t want to see new technologies make their business models obsolete.

So the question arises, isn’t capitalism supposed to be creative destruction? Buggy whip manufacturers are no longer a big business. The telegraph company wasn’t able to use the U.S. government to prevent telephony from making it obsolete. But now we’re seeing a situation where the telephone carriers spent all that money for the 3G options. They don’t want 802.11 or the software defined radio or the cognitive radio technologies that don’t require you to use a specific piece of spectrum. They don’t want those to emerge here because it would destroy their businesses. But in fact, there are good cases that are made by reputable scientists that our spectrum regulation is based on the way radios worked in the 1920s. Radios are no longer dumb. We no longer need to have one owner of one piece of spectrum in one place anymore. You’re looking at a scenario where the FCC prevents these technologies from emerging here, and maybe, I don’t know, Korea or Japan might decide to experiment in Okinawa and say, “We’re going to open up the spectrum and let these new technologies use it as a commons, the way the PC has used the Internet as a commons and we’ll regulate the devices so that they play nice with the spectrum, but no longer will people own a piece of the spectrum.”

Maybe something will emerge there and become a competitive advantage, and that will affect things here economically and politically. Then there’s the whole complicated issue of digital rights management and trying to regulate the way devices use digital material. The recording industry and the movie industry are dealing with this by saying they’re protecting the rights of artists. It’s actually protecting their business model. They did try to stop the VCR, and Jack Valenti, the Motion Picture Association lobbyist, was quoted when the VCR was being considered that “the VCR is to Hollywood movies as the Boston Strangler is to women walking alone at night in Boston.” Direct quote from his testimony.

Well, it turns out that Sony didn’t want to go along with Hollywood, and the VCR was manufactured and lo and behold, I think Hollywood gets 40 percent of the take from video these days.


HR: Now they’re afraid that Hollywood movies are going to be Napsterized and they need to put devices in all computers that will detect digital watermarks and prevent illegal copying. This could have some disastrous consequences. In the future, you’re taking video of your kid’s first steps and Mickey Mouse comes on the television. Suddenly your video camera detects the digital watermark and shuts down your camera. Or you’re walking down the street talking on the telephone and someone drives by and the music they’re playing is audible and your telephone shuts down. That is literally how these type of technologies might work. And there’s legislation pending that would allow those things to happen.

It also means that anyone who would want to, in the future, create an innovation in computer technology, or one that connects to it, would have to get three out of five Hollywood studios to approve it. So I think the simple way of explaining this is that there are existing interests who would like us to become more like the consumers of the broadcast era and less like the users of the PC and Internet era.

The new wrinkle is A, they’ve learned from past efforts and they’ve done much better in terms of cultivating legislators and FCC commissioners. And B, they’ve got Sony and Intel and Motorola in on it now. Phillips has sort of backed away from it because they don’t want their DVD players and recorders to become obsolete. But the coalition now is much more widespread than it was the last time they attempted this.

Will it work in the long run? I don’t think so. Could it turn the U.S. into a technological backwater? It happened with automobiles, it happened with consumer electronics. It appears to be happening with mobile telephony.

That’s depressing news for Americans.

HR: Well, a lot of innovators in the country get it, but the folks who spend the money in Washington are losing a lot of influence, just as they did with accounting practices in major corporations. It’s called gaming the market. It’s not really capitalism, which is, you know, supposed to have creative destruction, be constantly changing. That’s the nature of the market. But we’ve never had these enormous enterprises before.

Anyway, as you can see, this is about a lot of things. The theme that runs through it is that people use technologies. They appropriate technologies for social purposes and in the aggregate create entirely new technologies. And new social forms. It was part of what the book was about, this nature of cooperation. If we can use people’s self interest to create something that’s valuable for all of them, then we win. The Internet is an example of that.

Thank you.


The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier
Virtual Reality: The Revolutionary Technology of Computer-Generated Artificial Worlds—And How It Promises to Transform Society
Tools for Thought: The History and Future of Mind-Expanding Technology

Web sites: