Friday, November 11, 2005

Smart Mobs

This book review is long. So if you don’t want to read a long review of the book and its implications, let me tell you in the first paragraph, "This is a must read book!" It’s well written, exciting and scary. The technologies that the book is about have many potentially positive and negative outcomes. If you believe that society will still be dominated in the future by "zero sum" philosophies, at the individual, corporate and governmental level, then the outcome looks very scary. If you believe that society is ready to adopt "non-zero sum" games then the outlook is exciting and enormous changes will result that are positive. Non-zero sum games are behaviors that include "the unique human power and pleasure that comes from doing something that enriches everyone, a game where nobody has to lose for everyone to win." Zero sum games are best typified by our sports. There is a winner and there is a loser. When the rules are bent or broken, then tragic results can occur, i.e. Enron, which is zero-sum corporate behavior personified. Or, a present nemesis, spam. Spam is where one person wins and everyone else looses.

Robert Write wrote in "Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny", "New technologies arise that permit or encourage new, richer forms of non-zero-sum interaction; then (for intelligible reasons grounded ultimately in human nature*) social structures evolve that realize this rich potential – that convert non-zero-sum situations into positive sums. Thus does social complexity grow in scope and size."

The technologies that Rheingold documents that will enable "smart mob" he calls the mobile "infocom" industry. "Mobile communications and pervasive computing technologies, together with social contracts that were never possible before, are already beginning to change the way people meet, mate, work, fight, buy, sell, govern and create. Some of these changes are beneficial and empowering, and some amplify the capabilities of people whose intentions are malignant."

Rheingold defines smart mobs, "Smart mobs consist of people who are able to act in concert even if they don’t know each other. The people who make up smart mobs cooperate in ways never before possible because they carry devices that possess both communication and computing capabilities. Their mobile devices connect them with other information devices in their environment…" as well as other people. Microprocessors and, or with embedded, telecommunications chips are becoming inexpensive. As a result they will permeate our environment. Rheingold mentions furniture, buildings, neighborhoods, box tops, shoes and many others that are being embedded with what he calls "smartifacts". This shifts the emphasis from the creation of an "artificial reality" to the creation of an "augmented reality".

I just made a trip to Boston where I stayed at a hotel in an unfamiliar area. I went out to find a store where I could buy bottled water. You know how difficult a task that is a city center. If the infocom technology was present, I could have pointed my hand held device at a street sign, queried it and it could have told me via text message the directions to a store. Or, if I had wanted to talk to some one else interested in "smart mobs", I could have set up my personal profile indicating that I was open to having a conversation with someone about "smart mobs". If there was anyone else walking around last night with the same profile, say within two blocks of each other, we by mutual assent could have met to have a conversation. While I was typing this, the air conditioned in the room shut off. I got up to check the thermostat and the ac turned back on. It sensed my presence when I moved. The thermostat is already a dumb smartifact. If I had a profile on my portable device that indicated I liked a room temperature of 70°, the smart thermostat would be able to read that as long as I was in the room and keep the temperature like I liked it.

I walked for over an hour last evening, and the same technologies could have been used to bombard me with "spim", text message spam. Everyplace I walked by or things I looked at could have sent messages to the augmented environment that would have triggered an avalanche of advertisements. People could have read my profile and accidentally met me to sell me something. Muggers could have assessed me as a potential target.

The computer started as a military weapon 50 years ago. It has now reached the point where it is changing the way we work and live. This next jump in capability of computer, telecommunication and geographic location technologies is about to start another revolution. The characteristics of mobility, multimedia, high computational ability and location sensitivity multiple each others usefulness, not just add to. The backbone, or spinal cord, for these technologies is the Internet.

Rheingold points out that he believes that there are three factors that are bringing about these changes*:

  1. Moore’s Law (computer chips get cheaper as they grow more powerful)
  2. Metcalf’s Law (the useful power of a network multiplies rapidly as the number of nodes in the network increases)
  3. Reed’s Law (the power of a network, especially one that enhances social networks, multiplies even more rapidly as the number of human groups using the network increases)

Reviewer’s note: These are often stated as "laws" when in reality they depict trends. And, as trends they can be altered by changes in the external environment or the usefulness of the utility factor described. For example, Moore’s law refers to the number of circuits on a memory chip doubling every 2 years. The more circuits, the more function. The more function per chip, the lower the cost. Moore’s’ law has been extended to many other integrated circuit applications with different doubling rates.


The commons is an old concept. Originally, the commons was a shared pasture when peo0le in a village could graze their animals. If everyone juts grazes their share of animals, the commons works. But the temptation is there, since there is no government control, for someone to take advantage of the situation and graze more than their fair share. If everyone responds in kind, the pasture becomes over grazed and there is nothing for anyone’s animals to eat. The commons fails and everyone fails. This was called "The Tragedy of the Commons" by Garrett Hardin. The question is, can we have the freedom of the commons with government oversight? People are crying now for regulation to control spam – laws, fines, judgment. What freedoms do we lose in the exchange?


Reputation is playing a role in avoiding "the tragedy of the commons." Obviously, in the case of the original application of the commons, if a person over grazes their reputation goes down. Will they be allowed to graze the next year? Without force of law or violence, the only avenue open to the community is to shun the over grazer. Reputation systems technology will play an ever increasing role in the "electronic commons" we are building. For example, files sharing systems that are available to everyone that contributes in kind. I donate a file and I can take a file. If I take without donating, I am shunned. The quality and quantity of the exchange are still to be worked out.


The real potential poser of the commons occurs when it becomes an "innovation commons". That is that people joining the commons provide work product towards a common goal or shared vision to produce innovation.


The technologists that believe that an operating system ought to be a public good, are demonstrating daily that this type of innovation system works well. Open source is a viable way to develop software modules and applications. The open source software development model is gaining acceptance and growing.


In many cities, individuals and organizations are providing free wireless access to the Internet. The people and organizations donate their time, expertise and money to provide this free access because they believe that such access ought to be free and because they see the enormous benefit to their community in having a mobile, networked "smart mob". Everyone benefits from this infrastructure. That doesn’t stop people and organizations from setting up commercial systems and charging a toll for access to the "innovation commons". For example, the hotel I stayed at in Boston charged $9.95 per day. The restaurant next door has free wireless Internet access.


The Dean campaign for President, although it failed, is held out as the pioneer in the application of the innovation commons in politics. DeanSpace was the focal point for the gathering of people with a shared vision of Dean as President to meet online, organize, form local groups, solicit memberships, create rallies, fund raising, etc. Furthermore, the software that created DeanSpace is free to anyone who wants to use it for other applications. DeanSpace itself was created from free software developed in Open Source.


One of the key concepts of smart mobs is emergence. A school or fish, a flock of birds or a heard of animals demonstrate the rudimentary form of emergence. A school of fish all turn at the same time. It’s as though out of the collection of the individuals together in a school, they act as if they have a collective intelligence.


Many people were surprised by the popularity of text messaging on cell phones, especially among young people. They shouldn’t have been. Teenagers have the constant need to be told that they are OK. They swarm and text messages provide the means to develop the time and location. They’ve even developed a language for text messaging that fits the technology and the application. This type of behavior among the young, although well developed in the U.S, is most advanced in Japan and Finland. Rheingold calls these youth groups, "thumb tribes". They type with their thumbs without looking, even while walking or talking. However benign the technology application among the young, the technology can also be used by gangs and terrorists.


Termites have an organized society. They build nest, harvest food, care for the young and conduct war. When the warriors return from a battle, they are created by workers that swarm to them and touch them all over with their feelers. It might appear that the workers are solicitors of the warrior. It’s not benign however; if a warrior has been damaged in battle, they are killed upon reentry to the society.


The same type of phenomena can occur with teenagers as well. Reputation is essential to continue to participate in the smart mob. If false, or true, rumors are spread about an individual, that individual can be shunned from the group.


Steven Johnson wrote in Emergence, "In these systems, agents residing on one scale start producing behavior that lies on one scale above them: ants create colonies; urbanites create neighborhoods; simple pattern recognition software learns how to recommend new books. The movement from low-level rules to higher level sophistication is what we call emergence." Smart mob technologies have the potential of reorganizing cities, not by planned development, but by emergence.


Smart mob technologies are already altering the concepts of time and space among the young. A friend of mind told me the following story. He was with his daughter, a college student, and a group of her friends. They decided that they wanted some ice cream. One girl said that she would go get it and left in her car. As the girl was not familiar with the location, my friend asked his daughter how she was going to find an ice cream store. His daughter told him to wait. In a few minutes, the friend called on the cell phone, told her where she was and asked directions. The girl was constantly talking with my friend’s daughter as she steered her to the location. In this type of group there is no need for plan, schedule or map. It’s all in the moment, driven only by the impulse to get ice cream, and the recognition that the intelligence to accomplish the task resides somewhere in the group.


Another important factor affecting how these technologies will emerge is whether the commons is viewed as a scarce or abundant resource. In the case of the original commons, the resource was scarce. There was a limit to the land and the grass. And, there are some applications in the electronic commons where the resources may actually or at least be thought of as scarce.
One great example of where a resource was thought to be scarce was in the SETI program that is searching for extraterrestrial life by analyzing radio signals from space. With limited resources, they recognized that PC’s all over the world are not being used full time. Even if they are in use, as the one I’m using now is being used, the computer has more unused cycles than I’m using as I type. Those are all wasted comp0utational opportunities. The SETI program does not share cycles, but it does share chunks of time on PCs all over the world when they are not in use. "When nobody is using them, the PCs are swarming around the world in an amateur cooperative venture known as SETI@home – a collective super computer spread all over the Net." More than 2 million people donate their computer’s time to this project, creating a supercomputer on unimagined power.


"Distributed computation is only one example of how peer-to-peer arrangements can assemble scattered resources to create collective goods." Rheingold discusses ten different current applications. One, "United Devices, together with the National Foundation for Cancer Research and the University of Oxford, enables participants to contribute their CPU cycles to drug optimization computations involved in evaluating potential leukemia medicines from Oxford’s database of 250 million candidate molecules. Whereas Intel’s first supercomputer, built in the 1990s for Sandia National Laboratory at a cost of $40 -$50 million, is capable of one teraflop (one trillion floating operations*), the United Devices virtual supercomputer is aiming for fifty teraflops ‘at almost no cost’." United Devices is a nonprofit organization.


* per second


What if the resources of the commons are not scarce? What if they were abundant? Going back to the metaphor of the agricultural commons where neighbors grazed sheep, notorious for stripping a field of its grass, what if, in the words of Cory Doctorow, there were "grass shitting sheep". Maybe its not polite language, but the image is powerful. What if in the process of utilizing the commons, the users provision it? The commons then becomes a cornucopia.
Rheingold describes several knowledge systems that approach the cornucopia concept. The general concept is this. If a group of people have a common interest, they install software agents that keeps track of all the files and web sites that each person finds in pursuit of that interest. These are shared with all the others in the network. The software agents keep track of which files you keep and which you throw away learning from your actions. Also reputations grow as the agent learns to trust one contributor’s efforts over another’s. In the process of consuming the information, the system learns and improves its effectiveness and efficiency.
The dark side of this concept was Napster. It facilitated file sharing but the people doing the sharing didn’t own the copyright to the files.


Human creativity is abundant. For all practical purposes, human creativity can be considered limitless. Each person’s brain has 100 billion synapses. Any one synapse can be connected to hundreds of others so the number of combinations is greater than the number of molecules in the known universe. The number of possible combinations becomes unimaginably large when the number people on the planet are considered as all of those brains can be connected in a variety of different ways. Creativity enhancing systems will not only provision existing resources, they will create new resources.


The book has eight chapters, extensive research notes and a good index:

  1. Shibuya Epiphany
  2. Technologies of Cooperation
  3. Computation Nations and Swarm Computers
  4. The Era of Sentient Things
  5. The Evolution of Reputation
  6. Wireless Quilts
  7. Smart Mobs: The Power of the Mobile Many
  8. Always on Panopticon … Or Cooperation Amplifier

In the last chapter, Rheingold examines some of the important questions that need to be asked and answered about these new technologies. "If the citizens of the early twentieth century had paid more attention to the ways horseless carriages were changing their lives, could they have found ways to embrace the freedom, power and convenience of automobiles without reordering their grandchildren’s habitat in ugly ways? Before we start wearing our computers and digitizing our cities, can the generation of the early twenty-first century imagine what questions our grandchildren will wish we had asked today? Technology practices that might change the way we think are particularly worthy of critical scrutiny: High-resolution screens and broadband communication channels aren’t widget making machinery but sense-capturing, imagination-stimulating, opinion-shaping machinery."


The question Rheingold asks in the title of the chapter is will the technologies be used to created an all seeing eye, like the one in Tolkein’s Lord of the Ring, or will they create an environment where creativity and freedom flower.


Rheingold provides examples of the dangers of the technologies in three categories:

  1. Threats to liberty
  2. Threats to quality of life
  3. Threats to human dignity

It’s a sobering chapter, but he remains an optimist closing with following remarks. "Over the next few years, will nascent smart mobs be neutralized into passive, if mobile, consumers of another centrally controlled mass medium? Or will an innovation commons flourish, in which a large number of consumers also have the power to produce? The convergence of smart mob technologies is inevitable. The way we choose to use these technologies and the way governments allow us to us they are very much in question. Technologies of cooperation, or the ultimate disinfotainment apparatus? The next several years are a crucial and unusually malleable interregnum. Especially in this interval before the new media sphere settles into its final shape, what we know and what we do matters."

Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution, Howard Rheingold, Basic Books, 2002, Paper Back, 266 pages

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