Book review: Smart mobs

Stuff’s changing all around us. New technologies are changing the way we work, interact and even how we conduct our courtship rituals. From I-mode services in Japan to the hitech millieu of Scandinavia to president-toppling demonstrations in Manilla to cyborgs in the US who want to merge body and machine. And much of this change goes unnoticed or is rapidly integrated in our lives and taken for granted.

Imagine a group of people united in some cause. The cause can be anything from celebrity spotting in New York to anti-WTO demonstrations in Seattle. Now imagine the same group of people always connected to the net, to each other, always able to monitor opponents and competitors. That’s a smart mob. And trying to predict how people will act and interact when wireless networks, constant internet access, camera video phones etc. become widespread is the aim of this book, Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution by Howard Rheingold.

One of the books central concepts is that these new technologies should be managed as common resources, ie. available equally to anybody, with all the advantages and pitfalls this entails. A common resource is prone to overuse by unscrupulous individuals, eg. the way internet is abused by spammers who can mainly operate because sending emails is virtually free. However, a common resource also comprises a fertile basis for innovation and development, the prime example of this being (again) the internet. Just look at all the services that exist on the internet, freely competing because nobody owns the net.

The last few chapters of the book are rather bleak. Here Rheingold describes the negative scenarios. Constant digital surveillance. The entertainment industry managing to outlaw or heavily regulate file sharing and peer-to-peer networking. Big companies limiting the use of ?their? part of the internet to the services they provide. This is chilling reading, but it shows us where the fight is fought today, and what we must look out for.

The book manages to be remarkably up-to-date, considering the fast-changing nature of it’s subject. Some examples of smart mobs that have emerged since the book came out is the Howard Dean presidential campaing in the US which is grass-roots driven via the net and Malaysia recognizing divorce by SMS. As Piet hein said, ?It’s always difficult to make predictions, especially about the future?, but Rheingold manages to clearly lay out the driving principles and forces of many technologies and social trends. I recommend this book highly.

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