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Title: Smart Mobs
Author: Howard Rheingold
Publisher: Perseus
Copyright: 2002
ISBN: 0-738-20608-3
Pages: 288
Price: $26.00
Rating: 92%
I've read and enjoyed two of Howard Rheingold's previous books, so I was looking forward to Smart Mobs. The first of the other two books, The Virtual Community, chronicled the early days of The Well (an online service in San Francisco), while Virtual Reality looked at VR technologies. As Howard told me in an interview a few weeks ago (see the link at the end of this review), he was one of the first people writing trade books about how MUDs, ARPAnet, and other online technologies affected society. He also confided in me that part of the reason he started writing about this stuff was so he could justify to his wife all the time he spent online. I, for one, am glad she saw the wisdom of his ways.

The central thesis of Smart Mobs is that wireless communication technologies offer a new way for folks to combine their knowledge and energy. As Howard says in the book's introduction:

If the transition period we are entering in the first decade of the twenty-first century resembles the advent of PCs and the Internet, the new technology regime will turn out to be an entirely new medium, not simply a means of receiving stock quotes or email on the train or surfing the Web while walking down the street. Mobile Internet, when it really arrives, will not be just a way to do old things while moving. It will be a way to do things that couldn't be done before. (p. xiv)

I've done my share of pie in the sky predicting based on what other people have written, so I appreciate it when a writer takes the time to find out what's happening on the ground with regard to the new technologies they're writing about. As it turns out, Howard spent quite a bit of time in Europe, Scandinavia, Japan, and Redmond (with Microsoft's resident online sociologist) finding out how people behave in countries with more advanced wireless communication grids and standards that let people send text messages to any wireless-equipped device (not just to users on the same network as in the US). Those stories, and the personalities driving them, are all chronicled in Smart Mobs.

As engaging as Howard is as a writer, I couldn't give his work such a high rating if I didn't feel his book was something a literate but not necessarily technically sophisticated reader could pick up and, having read it, understand the forces at work. Fortunately, it's all there. I'd imagine that most all of the folks who buy Smart Mobs will know about Moore's Law, which states that the number of computing elements that could be fit in a given space would double every eighteen months. There are other forces at work, though, and Howard lists the three other "laws" that apply to wireless networking in a social context:

  • Sarnoff's Law, which states that the value of a broadcast network is proportionate to the number of viewers.
  • Metcalfe's Law, which states that the value of a network where each node can reach every other node grows with the square of the number of nodes.
  • Reed's Law, which states that, for a network where members of the network can form groups within the network, the value of that network will grow exponentially. That is, the value of the network is equal to the number of nodes raised to the power of the number of nodes, instead of just the square of the number of nodes.

Web logs ("blogs"),  eBay, and other online communities are examples of how users have made the Internet a network that conforms to Reed's Law.

So what's not to like about a new wireless Internet where the users are free to roam and create their own groups, spread their information, and share resources? From the point of view of the communication operators (a.k.a. the phone companies), they see little good coming out of creating a medium where they give up their powerful position as information gatekeepers. And, of course, there are vested financial interests on the part of the companies that have leased the rights to different parts of the radio frequency spectrum, even though there are technologies that can avoid interference and make sure all devices can "play nice".

On the political side, wireless technologies have had tremendous impacts, speeding the downfall of a government in the Philippines and being used to coordinate action during the World Trade Organization demonstrations in Seattle. I wouldn't be too surprised if there are plans in place to black out civilian wireless networks on an emergency basis in case of similar activity in the US.

We're taking the first baby steps toward a new wireless network, but there's a lot to be determined, both technologically and in terms of the freedoms we'll enjoy in using the network. Smart Mobs is a wonderful introduction to the issues at hand, and Howard Rheingold makes a powerful argument for an open network we can use to our best advantage.

Here's the link to the transcript of my interview with Howard Rheingold. You can also find this review translated into Armenian.

Curtis D. Frye (cfrye@teleport.com) is the editor and chief reviewer of Technology and Society Book Reviews.  He is also the author of three online courses and ten books , including Privacy-Enhanced Business from Quorum Books.