Mobile Communication, Pervasive Computing, and Collective Action

Howard Rheingold was one of the creators HotWired, as well as editor of The Whole Earth Review and editor-in-chief of The Millennium Whole Earth Catalog. More recently, Rheingold wrote the book Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution.

Howard Rheingold was one of the creators HotWired, as well as editor of The Whole Earth Review and editor-in-chief of The Millennium Whole Earth Catalog. More recently, Rheingold wrote the book Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution.


After an introduction by Jon Lebkowsky, Rheingold’s SXSW Interactive keynote touched on the topics of the new commonwealth created by the Net and cellphones, how people are leveraging those technologies, and some of his concerns about the future. What follows is a partial transcript of his talk.

I have no PowerPoint today. I found that with the combined use of PowerPoint right after lunch with the lights down, you might as well hand out graham crackers and take naps.

We are living in and benefiting from a commonwealth in which individuals are able to contribute to the benefit of all. That commonwealth is under attack. It’s being enclosed, privatized, metered, and sold back to us. The extension of copyright law into places it doesn’t below, the attempts to compromise the end-to-end principle of the Internet, and the innate right to innovate that’s built into the Internet all add up to a rip off of our culture and our children’s and their children’s culture. We need to resist it, and one was to resist is to fight back. The EFF does a great job doing that. Support EFF.

There is another way for this group, and that’s what I want to speak to. We can create a new commonwealth, and we can create it faster than it can be ripped off. I can’t be too specific about it. Who could have been specific about the Web back in the days when we had 2400 baud modems? The new commonwealth should be open, self-organizing, self-documenting, and foundational.

It started four years ago. I was on the streets of Tokyo noticing something that was really strange to American eyes back then. I saw 1 in 5 people walking down the street and looking at their cell phones. Sometimes you need to get out from behind the computer and into the face-to-face world. What I saw in Helsinki was people carrying their cell phones in their hand. The Finnish word for mobile phone is the diminutive term for hand: little hand. And they look at them a lot. I was having coffee in an outdoor caf鬠and I saw three teenagers encounter two adults. One of the kids looked down at his mobile phone and smiled. He showed his two peers, who smiled, but he did not show the two adults. They continued the conversation as though it were normal. I had no idea what it was.

The first law of research is to ask someone who knows. The second law of research is that if you don’t know who to ask, ask who knows? The people I talked to used words like “swarming” and “flocking” to describe the behavior. Eight friends would descend on a fast-food restaurant from eight different directions because they’d been exchanging text messages.

In Manila, people using similar tactics contributed to the fall of the Estrada regime. People self-organized demonstrations using text messages. The telephone tree is a relatively old organizing method, but it takes some time to call 10 friends. It takes less time to key in a message that will be sent onto everyone else in a friend’s address book.

Some kind of threshold had been lowered. People were interacting in a new way because they had a new way to communicate. Before I got more informed about collective action, I started looking at the technology. This will give us a lens to bring things into focus. These devices we know as telephones are morphing. They’re little Internet devices. That reminds me of what happened to PCs and the Internet. This little thing on my belt is probably more powerful than the first PC I bought.

Whatever’s happening here, for better or for worse, is going to happen to a lot more people than the PC and the Internet. There are people walking around slums barefoot talking on cellphones. The Grameen Bank gives microloans to women who own the one cellphone in their village. People who were not able to derive economic benefits from previous revolutions will be able to. Everything that the Internet brings is now untethered from the desktop and will colonize parts of the sphere that were never colonized by computation.

Another thing we remembered about the PC and Internet that will be incredibly important and uncertain is that the users created the applications. Bill Gates was a 19-year-old dropout. So were the guys who started Apple. Yes, the U.S. Defense Department and IBM all created a platform, but the mainframe computer world was not the reason for the PC. The microchip and the television screen allowed that to happen. They didnt give us mainframes, they gave us personal computers.

This combination of the telephone, the PC, and the Internet is kind of like looking at the future of the PC in 1980 or the Net in 1990. The changes I look at have to do with collective action. A lot of people misread that as collectivism, which is central control. The stock market is collective action. The fact that the Internet is a commons didn’t prevent Jerry Yang from becoming a millionaire. You can’t exclude anybody from that resource. There are some resources that are best treated as private property, and there are some that should be treated as commons. The people who try to fence off the commons and charge for it have the ears of the people in power. But they don’t have control of the people with devices who self-organize.

“Collective action dilemma” is a term that sociologists use. We are self-interested, but as humans we have found ways to cooperate. How do you balance self-protection and lack of trust with cooperation? Thats the basis of most social contracts. A lot of not exactly quid pro quo but diffuse reciprocity may have emerged from early hunting culture. Agriculture depends on larger groups of people. New social forms that never existed before, kingships, emerged. In order to keep track of who’s going to get how much grain the next time a famine comes around, accountants came around.

The printing press allowed a literate population to grow to millions. Collective forms of action became possible. You can’t get self-governing populations, science as a collective enterprise unless you have a sufficient number of literate people. The technology and the literacy are foundational, but they’re not sufficient. People need to invent relationships and enterprise agreements to create a new social form.

What you call progress is not the great deal it’s been painted to be. The lives as those hunters and gatherers may have been short, but not as brutish and nasty as we believe them to be. Then it occurred to me that collective action is the lens we can use to understand these new technologies.

Napster created a great big music-sharing machine by linking desktops via the Internet. The architecture of the software enables a solution to the dilemma that just wasn’t available before. We’re not finished with the economics that’s called the cornucopia of the commons. Distributed computation projects like SETI allow research that could never have been done before.

Another instance is the way Google’s page rank algorithm works. Ebay also leads to another aspect of this. Ebay is a market that should not exist. You’ve got someone you’ve never met before. They’re halfway around the world. And you’re going to send them a check? The first mover takes the risk. And markets like that don’t exist. But you can sell a lot of things, build a reputation, and raise the price of what you’re selling. You could cheat and abandon people, but you’d have to start selling lower. We have an existence proof of reputational assurance.

The question I ask is, What could we do walking around that we can’t do now, given a simple reputation system? There’s any number of things. If you want to connect with someone who’s looking at the same problem, you can do so with a few keystrokes. We all do that. When we’re walking down the street, we’re surrounded by people we don’t know. Some of those people may have common cause with us, but we don’t know who they are, and we can’t trust them so far.

There’s some experiments going on with ride sharing. There’s a big payoff there. If you’re a big company like Boeing with 70,000 employees going to the same place in Seattle, you’re paying the city a lot of money to pay for the wear and tear on the roads.

But the thing with reputational systems is that only geeks change defaults. The ability to coordinate and find common cause with people goes beyond selling a bike or finding a date. The keynote yesterday by the folks at MoveOn is a great example. You don’t need to write for the Times to write stories. The Dean campaign failed, but it raised unprecedented amounts of money online. In Kenya and Ghana, were there was a lot of concern about ballot boxes, people with cell phones would coordinate with radio stations to report how many people actually went to vote.

Is this going to be better for democracy? I wouldn’t leap to ensure that. It is more democratic. The manipulation of the crowd is a great tool for fascists. Disinformation can spread to more people in less time. The more people who understand what these dynamics are, the better chance we’ll have control over what will emerge. We’re seeing that the Internet is not as uncensorable as we thought. It used to be that the end-to-end nature meant that the Internet just sent bits around. You couldn’t really filter. But now big cable companies petition the FCC to lift that prohibition.

The Internet is going to be balkanized. You have to be a technology geek and policy wonk to understand what’s going on. The new regime is not set in stone. WiFi is a really good example. In essence, that really began with ham radio operators. These little patchworks are beginning to become quilts. I don’t think the entire world will become covered with WiFi, but the Web is not at 2400 baud.

I do encourage you to give your money to EFF, but I also encourage you to invent new systems.