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Ideas 2003: Just-in-time mobs

Ideas 2003: Just-in-time mobs

Howard Rheingold first got a notion of the future in Tokyo a couple of years ago. Now he's writing and talking about the next great cultural shift fuelled by technology, a phenomenon he calls smart mobs.

Howard Rheingold first got a notion of the future in Tokyo a couple of years ago. Rheingold, an author and commentator about technology's effect on society, noticed a number of pedestrians equipped with mobile phones. While it wasn't an unusual sight in itself, Rheingold saw that many people weren't talking on their phones; instead, they were using them to send and receive text messages. That got Rheingold thinking about the next great cultural shift fueled by technology, a phenomenon he calls smart mobs.

In essence, says Rheingold, smart mobs are groups of people "who use mobile devices to get information on a just-in-time basis." In addition, mobile devices will be what Rheingold terms location aware, meaning that groups of people can connect electronically at specific locations such as airports and restaurants. Such groups will use information to coordinate collective action (much in the same way Filipinos used text messages to organize antigovernment demonstrations in 2001) or compare business experiences (much like eBay Inc.'s current Web-based rating system). Wireless Internet access, pagers, PDAs and cell phones are among the existing technical underpinnings that will engender smart mobs. Add to that wearable computers and microchips embedded in everything from furniture to street signs, and Rheingold sees a recipe for truly pervasive computing.

The most resounding affect of pervasive computing will be social changes, contends Rheingold, who has written a book on the topic, Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution (Perseus Publishing, 2002). Look at Finland for a preview, he says. "The use of cell phones and text messages is pervasive. Already, the norms of communication in business -- where the boss calls subordinates -- is reversed." With applications such as instant messaging, employees on the front lines with customers can communicate with colleagues in marketing and engineering and then respond to customers. The result, says Rheingold, is more empowered employees because decisions are based on many conversations rather than dictated from the top down.

Of course, there's a real danger for people to become enslaved by technology rather than freed by it. Nevertheless, the future as Rheingold sees it is well on its way. Soon the number of mobile devices connected to the Internet will surpass wired PCs, creating an environment rife for smart mobs.

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