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Learning from the "Thumb Tribes"

If Smart Mobs sounds like a rather scary concept, that's partly what Howard Rheingold intended with the title of his just-released book (see BW, 11/18/02, "Coming on the Net: People Power"). Rheingold, a longtime observer of technology trends and author of The Virtual Community, believes the rise of pervasive mobile communications combined with always-on Internet connections will produce new kinds of ad-hoc social groups.

He says such groups are already starting to emerge. Witness the spontaneous community of buyers and sellers on eBay, teens flirting via cell phones in Brazil -- and al Qaeda's sophisticated use of the Net and mobile phones to plan and execute terrorist acts. A brave new world is dawning, believes Rheingold, one that will transcend both the personal computer and the Internet.

In a recent conversation with BusinessWeek Silicon Valley Bureau Chief Robert D. Hof, Rheingold talked about smart mobs and how he seeks out and articulates emerging technology-driven social trends. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:

Q: How did you get interested in the social implications of technology?

A: I didn't start out consciously doing that. I think it was in 1982 that the computer was Time [magazine's] Man of the Year. I ended up writing a book about the origins and the future of the personal computer, Tools for Thought, which was published in 1985. I wrote in the opening paragraph about what it would be like in the year 2000 -- machines would be thousands of times more powerful, all networked together.

As a consequence of that research, I got myself a modem. When I saw words coming across my screen, and I was able to post something and saw a reply to it a few minutes later, that was a similar vision. Something was happening that viscerally I knew would change my life and change other people's lives. I wrote The Virtual Community about that.

Q: What started you on this particular trend you call smart mobs?

A: Early in 2000, I was walking around Tokyo and couldn't help noticing that people were looking at their telephones rather than listening to them. And they were thumbing messages into them rather than talking into them.

A couple of months later, halfway around the world in Helsinki, I was sitting at an outdoor caf?. Three teenagers came by, encountered two older adults, maybe their parents, and one of the kids looked at his phone and smiled, and showed his phone to the other two kids, and they smiled. But they didn't show it to the two adults. Suddenly, a circuit closed. I thought, O.K., something is happening in Japan, it's happening here, it has infiltrated both societies. It's now happening in the U.S. What's going on here?

It wasn't until [later that] it was explained to me that those telephones had persistent Internet connections. Then I thought, "Oh, the Internet -- now it's in people's pockets." It's everywhere. People who wouldn't even own a computer or sit in front of a computer at work have these things.

Q: Why is the combination of phones and the Net so different?

A: The PC was not a mainframe with a television screen. It was a new medium with its own properties that was available to people who wouldn't have been interested in just a fancy computer. And the Internet was not just something where a PC could connect to other PCs by telephone. It was a new medium with its own properties.

So I realized that the mobile Internet wasn't going to be getting stock quotes on your telephone or surfing the Web on a tiny screen. It was going to make things possible that weren't possible before. What it makes possible, among other things, is collective action -- people coordinating their activities in configurations and timing that weren't possible before.

Q: But this vision hasn't quite arrived in a business sense, has it?

A: American industry isn't quite there. But you've got thumb tribes of teenagers in Tokyo. You've got everyone in Helsinki. In Italy, I was in the town of Lucca, where on Saturday night all the teenagers from the little towns around there come and parade -- except now, they're thumbing messages at each other on mobile phones while parading.

I was in Brazil, crawling along in a traffic jam in S?o Paulo, and there's a girl, barefoot, in one of the vast slums there, and she's riding her bicycle down the street talking on the telephone.

The government of the Philippines was brought down by people using cell phones to organize. The countercoup in Venezuela was organized that way. Clearly, the al Qaeda network, and specifically the attacks of 9/11, wouldn't have been possible without cell phones and the Internet. It's not entirely a positive development.

Collective action, mobile communications, and pervasive connections to the Internet -- they're already adding up. This is like 1978 or 1979 for the PC, and 1989 or 1990 for the Internet. We're talking about making these changes part of the fabric of walking down the street, driving in the car, sitting on the train. It's not so much a thing as a set of social factors.

Q: So the next breakthroughs in technology could well be social movements rather than products?

A: Technology often lowers barriers to entry and lowers transaction costs, and that has emergent effects on economies. I think there's going to be a similar effect in lowering the transaction costs for groups of people to mobilize their activities. Seventy million people shared their hard-disk space when they used Napster [the file-sharing network]. What happens when those are mobile devices [and vast amounts of computing power]?

Q: Sounds interesting! What do you think?

A: You have to look at where the PC was in 1978. Who would have said you would hold a device in the palm of your hand with a full-color screen and a gigabyte of storage in it for a few hundred dollars? It's difficult if not impossible to foresee what all the world-shaking applications will be. The biggest changes are not going to be foreseen. They're probably going to be invented by two Stanford students in a dorm room.

Q: Will these movements really be as democratic as you envision?

A: That's open for question. Is it going to be an open platform for innovation, or will the cable companies and telcos or manufacturers have the ability to forestall innovation? Tim Berners-Lee [developer of the World Wide Web] didn't have to go the The Internet Co. to say, "Please change the way the Internet works." He distributed some software through the Internet itself, and people started using it, and then the Web came along.

Well, we may not be able to do that with the mobile Internet. The lockdown of broadband providers and the move to build digital-rights-management chips that limit what changes you can make on the edges of the network may mean that the Gateses or the Wozniaks or the Berners-Lees of the future won't be in the game. And that means the game slows down.

Q: You sound rather pessimistic.

A: I think globalization is going to really work against that scenario. How much can the U.S. dictate to the world? I think, perversely, if the rest of the world is pissed off about our foreign policy, they may not go along with our intellectual-property treaties. So the U.S. decides to become a backwater: What if Korea or Indonesia or Botswana decides to deregulate spectrum or not include [copyright-protection] chips in our computers? It used to be creative destruction [defined] capitalism. Now we see this massive move to protect yesterday's business model.

Q: How do you go about trying to see into the future?

A: I wouldn't have been able to write this book without the Internet, without a community of experts to help me. But I really don't think I would have known what to look for if I hadn't been on the streets of Tokyo and Helsinki. You gotta be out there.

I'm trying to find out what's going to change my life the way the PC and the Internet did. I'm really not like your usual futurist who has corporate clients who are expecting reports. If you drink too much good chardonnay on the yachts of CEOs and you don't take the bus, you're going to miss some things.

Not that I don't talk to folks at IBM or Nokia or Sony. It's just that I'm constantly amazed they're not aware that there's something that's directly colliding with what they're doing.

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