2.5 Cybrid Citizens: The advent of the Smart Mob

Already the pace at which we live due to the technological saturation of our daily lives has led to the widening of our social circles. We stay in contact with many more people than ever before and submit to living in a constant potential of being interrupted by carrying communications devices at all times, everywhere we go.

[Please refer to my Bibliography for the sources of quotes.]

These connections are no longer local either. With the rise of cheap travel we are much more likely to keep in contact with those people we meet across the world. Whereas before we would have to write letters and make expensive international phone calls we now send email and text messages and speak in real-time using instant messaging software, which is now enabled with video and sound . Such persistent connections are not as close as those nurtured face-to-face and so although people often view the world in terms of groups, they function in networks.

The change from groups to networks can be seen at many levels. …Communities are far-flung, loosely-bounded, sparsely-knit and fragmentary. Most people operate in multiple, thinly connected partial communities as they deal with networks of kin, neighbours, friends, workmates and organisational ties. Rather than fitting into the same group as those around them, each person has his/her own “personal community”. (Wellman, 2001: 227)

Some of these connections may also be temporary. United by common goals people form transitory special interest groups. When augmented by modern communications technologies these groups can take on an epic scale. Recently, rallies against the Iraq War were organised with great effect using the Internet. Cellspace has also proved invaluable in organising large groups of people. On January the 20th 2001 President Joseph Estrada of the Philippines became the first head of state in history to lose power to an army of demonstrators armed solely with mobile phones. Tens of thousands of Manila residents, mobilised and coordinated by waves of text messages, converged on Epifano de los Santas Avenue, known as Edsa, within an hour of the first text message volleys reading “Go 2 EDSA, wear blck”. Over the next four days over a million Filipinos joined the demonstration. Estrada was rapidly ousted from power.

This new fast-paced mobile ad hoc communications phenomenon is described in depth by Howard Rheingold (2002). Rheingold, like Anders, has coined a useful term to denote the emerging behaviours of technologically enabled groups: the ‘smart mob’.

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 way never before possible because they carry devices that possess both communications and computing capabilities. (Rheingold, 2002: xii)

It is the combination of increasingly rapid personal communication, cell and cybrid spaces and reputation that is and will continue the evolution of this new social form. This combination is only now beginning to knit and reveal its form making the coming decade a crucial period in which we can decide how we want such social and technological systems to benefit us.

The mobile phone and the proliferation of cellspace offer the first insight into the possibilities smart mobbing will afford. As seen in the Philippines in 2001, at the World Trade Organisation demonstrations in Seattle, in 2000, and most recently in the protests in Madrid after the rail bombings (2004), living in cellspace allows the rapid coordination of large groups through the massive distributed sending of text messages. As in Manila and Madrid, within minutes tens of thousands of people can be on the streets, within days it can be millions.

Such massive cooperation has always been possible but there has simply never before been a means of communication that was as fast, cheap and widespread as the mobile phone. Rheingold notes that researchers at Xerox PARC studying the dynamics of social systems observed that a diversity of cooperation thresholds among a crowd can tip it into a sudden epidemic of cooperation. A minority of extremists might act first and, if conditions are right, their actions can trigger others who needed to see somebody else make the first move, at which point a cascade of others may take their cue. (2002: 174)

Of course sudden epidemics of cooperation are not always as positive as demonstrations against totalitarian regimes or the perpetration of seemingly unjust wars. The lynch mobs of the former Yugoslavia and the involvement of a large part of the population of Rwanda in the perpetration of atrocities are testament to this.

This ‘threshold’ model of cooperative behaviour helps explain the link between ‘intelligent’ cooperative behaviour and the emergent flocking and swarming behaviours of ‘unintelligent’ animals. Thresholds are individual reactions to the dynamics of groups. The key statistic is the proportion of other people who have to act before an individual decides to join them (Granovitter in Rheingold, 2002: 175).

It is worth noting that the cooperative behaviour exhibited en mass in Manila and elsewhere involved a fairly high level of initial motivation followed by a proactive use of mobile phones, fully exploiting cellspace. Part of the reason the smart mobs of Manila, Seattle and Madrid were able to function was that the technology had ceased being a novelty and had permeated their lives to the extent that extending oneself into cellspace was second nature.

As mentioned throughout this chapter a variety of technologies now allow devices to intercommunicate and form ad hoc networks. It is this facility of new technologies that will aid social cooperation on a broader everyday level. When interacting with co-present others in everyday spaces people are not united in clear common goals. This is where smart mob technologies promise extraordinary change. Already used to carrying mobile phones, it is likely we will readily accept their successors, often dubbed ‘smart phones’, that will provide a persistent mediation of our surroundings. Location-based technologies will provide us with information about our immediate surroundings and mobile ad hoc peer-to-peer technologies will provide us with information about the people we come in to contact with. Coupled with this we shall never be without the facility to communicate with the rest of the planet using voice communications or the mobile Internet.

There are a variety of services worldwide that are beginning to offer users the ability to explore new ways of interacting with their environments and other people within their vicinity. Commercial applications such as Dodgeball, ImaHima, Lovegety Mogi, and Node Explore already facilitate smart mob behaviours. They allow users to ascertain information about their location, beyond what is available to them simply in actuality, and allow them to make links with people they would otherwise never be aware of, managing trust and reputation issues along the way.

With many political issues, such as privacy, international monopolies and freedom of speech, the nature of smart mobs remains uncertain, as Rheingold says: ‘Technologies of cooperation or the ultimate disinfotainment apparatus? The next several years are a crucial and unusually malleable interregnum.’ (2002: 215) What we know about the new technologies, how we use them and how we let them be used on society is sure to have implications on how we live and particularly on our social navigation of public space.

Posted by Sam at April 23, 2004 11:55 AM

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