Smart Mobs

Tom Abeles (Editor)

On the Horizon

ISSN: 1074-8121

Article publication date: 1 March 2003



Abeles, T. (2003), "Smart Mobs", On the Horizon, Vol. 11 No. 1, pp. 34-36.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2003, MCB UP Limited

The public intellectual has become the Abominable Snowman of contemporary discourse: there are endless discussions about what one might look like but no one has actually seen one (Andrew Anthony as quoted by Geert Lovink).

Howard Rheingold is a cultural voyeur, a chronicler, keen observer, and skillful articulator of emerging ideas and social trends. A veteran of “The well”, one of the first virtual communities to arise from the evolution of cheap personal computers and modems, Rheingold has continually sought to identify key technology drivers, from “back‐to‐the‐land” tools promoted by “The Whole Earth Catalogue” to the global ubiquity, today, of SMS (Short Message Service) using wireless phones, pagers, and PDAs (personal digital assistants). Geert Lovink is to Rheingold as complexity theorist, Ilya Prigogine, is to chaos author, James Gleick. Lovink comes out of the alchemical European community that created much of the social and cultural experimentation that arose with the evolution of the wired technologies.

Lovink’s Dark Fiber is less about the technology than about the intersection between that hardware/software and society at both the individual and community levels. It is an archeological struggle to represent the birthing of a social conscience that arose both because of the enabling power of the emerging technology and the problems which were the result of that same event. Lovink’s palette is the wired world of the Internet with its ubiquitous screens of text and graphics.

On the other hand, Rheingold’s world is that rising from the ubiquity of the cellular phone and peer‐to‐peer meshed networks where communities form and disperse seemingly with the same sense of purpose as a flock of sparrows. Rheingold plays the innocent intellectual trying to build a picture of how the world of wireless communication devices emerged on a global scale. Why was Japan able to make these devices ubiquitous while the USA is still struggling? How are social patterns changing? Why are these devices widely used in countries, such as the Philippines, where the cost seems to be beyond the average user? And, what happens when your pop‐up toaster becomes your medical advisor and your eye glasses your virtual library and navigator?

Media savvy Rheingold supports his text with an interactive Web site: and expands the discussion in his ongoing asynchronous conference, brainstorms, Lovink’s volume follows the more traditional, academic, route while providing sufficient bibliographic materials that readers can thread their way to the appropriate text and virtual spaces. Rheingold’s work is pragmatic, a metaphor for the wired world that he sees emerging. Lovink, in the European philosophical tradition, represents much of what he and the “digital divide” community find frustrating as they struggle to close the gap between the enfranchised and disenfranchised, globally.

Smart Mobs reads like a report from a war correspondent following up the leads behind the ongoing set of events. What drove the corporations to devise and distribute the technology; how has it been used; what is coming down the pike; how will this impact on the future. In the past most of the wired world seems to have been driven by the USA. Rheingold leaves no question that, currently, these events are global in nature. But, there is lingering “certainty” that when the USA “gets it” that it will again become the 900 pound gorilla.

Rheingold is quoted on the dust cover of Dark Fiber, as stating, “Geert Lovink taught me how to think critically about technology, and I always turn to him for thoughtful and humane analysis.” The statement neatly sums up the differences in the spirit and focus of the two volumes. Lovink, in the trenches, has and continues to struggle with deeper concerns that underpin the emerging changes while Rheingold provides the panoramic view.

The subtitle to Dark Fiber, “Tracking Internet culture” reads truer to the book’s purpose. Dark Fiber, the unused band width left from the collapse of the “dot com’s” at the turn of the century may be misdirection or an obscure metaphor for the unrealized potential, the half‐empty cup of Lovink, juxtaposed to Rheingold’s enthusiasm. Lovink has wandered through the Internet maze from its early development, somewhat as a cyber anarchist, bent on turning the Internet to social purpose. As such he reminds one of A.A. Milne’s Eyore in Winnie the Pooh, chasing that elusive technological solution, acutely aware of both the potential that can transform while always wary of the possibilities of being bitten. On the other hand Rheingold’s “Tigger” is always surprised and delighted at just seeing the emergence.

For readers of OTH, what might these volumes imply for the post secondary institutions other than to realize that student use of cell phones will save money by eliminating twisted pairs in the dormitories, to understand the need to introduce wireless networks and notebook computers on campus, and to provide “New Media” and related courses across the engineering and humanities programs? Is it sufficient to recognize the emergence of cyber natives and to provide a technology play pen? Is it important to worry that over the next five to ten years, the incoming generations may be far more cyber savvy than the faculty – that is, until this current generation retires to allow the next wave of faculty to enter the ranks?

Rheingold’s observations seem to point to the inevitability of this technologically driven trend and show exactly how the Japanese, for example, DoCoMo, have read the opportunity and capitalized on it. On the one hand, the excess capacity of the wired world, the corporate world’s Dark Fiber, represents unrealized potential to bridge the world’s citizens and could help suture the digital divide. On the other hand, once the USA can find its way through its standards civil war, will the virtual commons be closed and partitioned much as we saw with the fabled English Commons? Even “open source” software is being championed by corporations such as IBM.

Today, the university’s future is caught between Rheingold’s Scylla, the technological utopia, where your espresso machine is your electronic confidant, and Lovink’s Charybdis, where the academia is intellectually whip‐sawed like Hamlet’s Polonius trying to puzzle through the shapeless clouds. We saw the rush by the business schools to proclaim their expertise on e‐commerce via texts and publications, ink still wet, just as the industry collapsed almost as fast as it rose. In the wake, the global problems in business ethics brought out the academics and consultants whose expertise was being written one line ahead of industry desperately seeking insights.

Historically, we have seen the university pressed into intellectual service to the church, gradually shifting its responsibilities to the state, and now, responding to the needs of the corporation. Studies have shown that the ubiquitous marketers of technology, traveling the world with their digital assistants, cell phones and wireless computers, can not understand why anyone would not want to acquire wired capabilities whether in the wilds of wireless, San Francisco or a village in Bangladesh.

The USD 120/year/person spent to market everything from cans of cola to games on cell phones can not but generate consumer demand for technology whether it is the person trading from his sampan in S.E. Asia or the faculty and staff at a university. How can I live without whiter teeth and how will a university survive in a world wired 24/7/365, knowledge immediately displayed on my eye glasses from my wearable computer?

Rheingold, as a reporter and chronicler, sees the joy of this ubiquitous and meshed network connecting people locally and globally: Lovink is concerned that we may have technological “mind candy,” a world accessing what those who control the meshed networks allow on the virtual information highway, censorship at the meta level.

Universities are caught in the perceived need to be wired into the system. Yet its philosophical explorations of the larger issues that drive their constituents and the institution themselves remain adumbrated by the rush to technology – often pointed out by the shifting sands of academic departments towards the “knowledge economy.”

Peer‐to‐peer connectivity and wired access decentralizes knowledge. Professors already network amongst colleagues who are dispersed, globally, and campus “peers” often have little or no expertise to effectively engage with, much less, evaluate scholarly accomplishments of their associate ensconced next door, or even, the work of their graduate students. Libraries become Internet cafes and intellectual repositories are virtual, lodged in Web‐based collections or in the ubiquitous Web logs or “Blogs”.

Today the “academic” community is struggling to build the bridge by pushing Internet access that last mile. In education, in the USA, home schooling is decentralizing education and is growing at a phenomenal rate while private for‐profit universities are educating adults in virtual space and traditional universities are sitting in the middle of this divide watching the screen‐agers of youth mature and the adult market flow away.

Lovink’s archeology, while constructing a past, is trying to find those core values, if there are such in a post modern rhetoric, that bind humans in a global community, a universal cultural translator, much like language translators in the world of science fiction, which build bridges while maintaining independence. Rheingold sees the world as embracing diversity by allowing for a free market of cultural collectives. Here we see two social economies, the Austrian version where cellular technology provides for cultural promiscuity, like the pill gave to sexual expression, and the socially directed communities, ever struggling for perfection like Sisyphus.

What does this bode for the scholars that are captive within the academy? With the number of adjuncts averaging, in US institutions, better than 40 percent, Rheingold’s read of the community outside the ivy covered walls appears to be mirrored on the interior with the model being amplified as intellectuals become virtual and ubiquitous. Even gurus sitting on a mountain can be wired into a campus via a “hand held.” Rather than itinerant scholars traveling the well worn roads, shoe leather will be traded for callused thumbs operating cells with SMSs or wrist bands to minimize carpel tunnel syndrome from the wired laptops.

Rheingold sets, as a background, Metcalf and Reed’s “laws.” Metcalf points out the amplifying power of the number of nodes created in a computer network while Reed’s insight reflects the power as more social groups gain such access. Lovink’s concern is that these latter effects might be real only in an intellectual and social commons. Once the wild west of the Internet is fenced, then these observations make sense in restricted dimensions. Rheingold uses the protest at the WTO meeting in Seattle to show the organizing power of these wired technologies. Yet he fails to address that later demonstrations in other cities were contained by a larger, better equipped “State apparatus.”

In a discussion with the chancellor of a university, I remarked that the action taken by his office was in violation of the rules established by the faculty governing body. He replied that when the faculty was ready to take power, then he would grant it to them. In a world that is increasingly diffuse, where faculty need outside accreditation for promotion and tenure, the willingness and ability to form a cohesive campus based community is stunted. The academic is hoisted on his/her own petard, by social convention and, now, by an increasingly wired world.

Of course, this is the schizophrenia that confronts one who is attempting to be a critic of the very system which has the potential to tilt the playing field to either side of the social change register. As with Rheingold’s example of the technology trader living on a boat, the community of commerce no longer involves enhanced local economics or community. In fact, the location is accidental and ephemeral since the digital connection works should the boat float down stream. More than one faculty member’s boat is not moored at the institutional slip both literally and figuratively. As of this writing, the US Government has just relaxed its standards that limited reimbursement for virtual classes. Can the university, like Rheingold’s sparrows, disburse and reform like a floating “craps (dice)” game?

None of the theories and data gathered … predicts what populations will do in an environment of ad hoc networks, wearable computers … but most of the conditions for a phase change in the scale of cooperation could be met by smart mob infrastructure … In order for such an infrastructure to be everywhere … it is going to have to complete a passage … to a wireless world (Rheingold, p. 132).

Rheingold’s Pollyanna vision is offset by numerous authors. Lovink sees, “A lively public net culture is always one in the making, free of governance and agency, representing everyone and no one, recovering a domain that never was” (p. 19). Yet he is less than sanguine. “The glorification of action and counterculture will prove no match for corporations and nation states to contain the Web” (p. 18).

Of course, the control that the state affords over both the institution and the academic is through “certification.” This power is eroding as we see in such self‐certifying bodies as Universitas 21 which uses the reputation of the individual members. Similar abilities for individuals are being created on the Web through such mechanisms of trust as seen by reviews on or E‐Bay and other systems for creating “reputation” on the Web. The interest in degrees compared to measures of competency is becoming a factor in evaluating the individual.

Thus, the power of certification organizations at all levels may be called into question or the standards used may be undergoing changes in the wired world. What is it, then, that a university and its faculty provide?

At one time, science and engineering could command a strong physical presence on a campus. Today, increasingly, engineers, like open source programmers, can be disbursed around the world. Experiments in one part of the world can be touched across continents and oceans and results distributed virtually with the speed of light. Yes, the fears of an inter‐connected, but disembodied, world is no longer an unrealized science fiction vision.

What needs to be outlined is the possible role of tomorrow’s intellectuals in the digital public domain, but also within the “third generation" wireless phone spectrum, satellites, and terrestrial digital radio and television bands” (Lovink, p. 33). There is the story of an African regiment placed opposite a German unit in the First World War. At night, all that one could hear was the sound of their long knives being carefully honed. One day the Germans charged and an African took a swing just as the German stepped back. The German shouted that the African missed. The African replied that the German should wait until he tries to shake his head. Is it possible that the thin dark fiber may have deftly garroted The Academy? This is a joint review with Dark Fiber.

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