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Day of the smart mobs

By Chris Taylor


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If you want to understand the future of political protests -- or any other grass-roots group activity, for that matter -- consider Eli Pariser, 22.

The New Yorker was barely old enough to hold candles at his parents' vigils during the Gulf War. Now he's the international coordinator of Moveon.org, an antiwar movement that has four paid staff members and no office but wields enough power to set a major metropolis on high alert.

Using nothing more than e-mail and instant messages, Pariser can ask an army of 750,000 protesters to take to the streets whenever he chooses -- although the dates are decided by an even larger, equally ad hoc international peace network. On Feb. 15, Pariser's army joined millions of people who demonstrated in cities around the world against the possibility of a war in Iraq. On March 15, they will do it again.

Pariser sits at the nexus of what Howard Rheingold would call a smart mob. Rheingold, a veteran technology watcher and well-published futurist (Tools for Thought, 1985; Virtual Reality, 1991; The Virtual Community, 1993), has put his finger on yet another transformative technology. In Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution (Perseus; 288 pages) he describes how large, geographically dispersed groups connected only by thin threads of communications technology -- cell phones, text messaging, two-way pagers, e-mail, websites -- can be drawn together at a moment's notice like schools of fish to perform some collective action.

Political demonstrations are the classic example, but the action doesn't have to be political or ever take to the streets. More than 400,000 antiwar protesters last Wednesday jammed switchboards in the White House and Congress with a flood of phone calls, faxes and e-mails in what was billed as the first nationwide virtual demonstration.

On the same day in Rio de Janeiro, according to Brazilian authorities, a jailed Brazilian druglord known as Fernandinho Beira-Mar coordinated a round of riots, bombs and bus burnings from his prison cell using a smuggled cell phone.

The original smart mobs were teenage "thumb tribes" in Tokyo and Helsinki who punched out short, cheap text messages on primitive cell phones to organize impromptu raves or to stalk their favorite celebrities. (In Tokyo, crowds of teenage fans would appear as if by magic at subway stops where a rock musician was rumored to be headed.)

"Texting," as this practice is known, spread like the Hong Kong flu, especially in the developing world. In the Philippines, the black-clad crowds that toppled President Joseph Estrada in 2001 were summoned into being with a now famous single line of coded text passed from phone to phone: "Go 2 EDSA [an acronym for a Manila street]. Wear blck."

In Nigeria, the same technology was used to spark anti-Miss World riots that killed hundreds and drove the beauty contest out of Africa.

Texting has been slow to take off in the U.S., largely because the service has been relatively expensive and far from ubiquitous. But that's changing rapidly: 27 million American cell-phone users can now send text messages, 50% more than last year. Besides, for most applications, personal computers plugged into the Internet -- especially those with wireless connections -- work just fine. Indeed, the computing power sitting on the nodes of these impromptu networks can be harnessed to do a lot more than call out troops for a rally.

Rheingold considers the screen savers that millions of computer owners use to donate their spare computer power to search for intelligent life in the universe or, more recently, to find a cure for smallpox (see www.grid. org), as further examples of smart mobs in action. He calls them "supercomputer swarms."

Some of the most powerful smart mobs, Rheingold would argue, can be found on anarchic computer services like the Gnutella network, which replaced Napster as the favored venue for swapping music on the Internet.

In these systems, groups of music enthusiasts gather and disperse in a dynamic, unpredictable way that makes it easy for kids to download free music but devilishly difficult for copyright holders to crack down on the practice. The music industry has already been transformed -- if not mortally wounded -- by mobs of music pirates.

Government institutions may be relatively impervious to smart-mob technology, but they are probably not immune.



Copyright © 2003 Time Inc.

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