No, this is not a book about EverQuest.

When Howard Rheingold wrote his previous book, The Virtual Community, the World Wide Web was in its larval stage and didn't make the text until it got into paperback. Between then and now, Rheingold has been one of the first professional web discussion board hosts, editor of the Millennium Whole Earth Catalog, and the founder of a startup. A couple of years ago, he was still traveling around the world every now and then to give talks at conferences, and he made it to Japan for the first time. In Shibuya Crossing, one of Tokyo's busiest and most oddly fashionable intersections, he noticed something that, to him, was odd even for Japan: "That was when I began to notice people on the streets of Tokyo staring at their mobile phones instead of talking to them."

A few months later, he saw something even more interesting in Finland (home of Nokia):

[...] I watched five Finns meet and talk on the sidewalk. Three were in their early twenties. Two were old enough to be the younger people's parents. One of the younger persons looked down at his mobile phone while he was talking to one of the older people. The young man smiled and then showed the screen of his telephone to his peers, who looked at each other and smiled. However, the young man holding the device didn't show his mobile phone's screen to the older two. The sidewalk conversation among the five people flowed smoothly, apparently unperturbed by the activities I witnessed.
Then there's the Phillipines. In 2001, President Joseph Estrada called off an investigation into his own impeachment, and within 30 minutes, the same plaza square where "People Power" demonstrations felled Marcos in 1986 was filling with people wearing black. They kept coming, thousands upon thousands of them, over four days. The military withdrew its support from the corrupt regime, and Estrada fell. Rheingold claims that an ad-hoc network of mobile phone users - a smart mob - brought down a president. That's a bit hyperbolic, but if it doesn't prove to you how destabilizing this technology is, just look to its use in Seattle, and its subsequent rumored shutdown at Quebec City.

Smart Mobs is not the easy, friendly read for technophobes that The Virtual Community was. It helps if you already know what a Panopticon is, and what Usenet does. It's also not the kind of thorough history that Rheingold did in his first book, Tools For Thought, on pioneers like Doug Englebart and how computing turned from big iron to PCs. Smart Mobs is a little more "history as it happens," breathlessly paced and full of a postmodern profusion of stuff. (E2 gets two sentences in the "Evolution of Reputation" chapter, in between Epinions and weblogs. He says we have message boards; I already set him straight, okay?)

Executives apparently like that, but your mom would be a little confused. If you already know what Napster is, for example, the two or three pages it gets here will be diverting but not very edifying. If you don't, they'll be over frustratingly quickly. However, the chapter on game theory and cooperation will add to both parties' understanding of the Net across the board. And some of the most enlightening things in the book are just juxtapositions. Napster gets more interesting when you think about what it has in common with SETI@Home, and with Slashdot's moderation and karma systems - leveraging individual whims for the greater good.

Also, given that SMS texting is in some ways the thing that the rest of the book does its complicated maypole dance around, it's a little bothersome that we don't hear more about why texting hasn't taken off in the US. Businesspeople are probably even more irritated than I am. There's a paragraph early on about pricing, competing standards and poor marketing, and those are all important factors. But ask yourself a question: do you think there's any reason to type with your thumb when you could just make a call? There are cases to be made for it, and the book does bring up the popularity of alpha pagers amongst African Americans, but the rest of the picture comes in bits and pieces. Like this one from Tokyo: "[sociologist Mizuko] Ito believes that mobile phones triggered an intergenerational power shift in Japan because they freed youth from 'the tyranny of the landline shared by inquisitive family members, creating a space for private communication'". Or this one from Manila: "in a country where 40 percent of the population lives on one dollar a day, the fact that text messages are one-tenth the price of a voice call is significant."

One major value of Smart Mobs is it's telling us that here in America, even in my Silicon backyard, we're about five years behind. Some of the factors that make mobile networks popular elsewhere aren't present here, but a lot are (such as social alienation in our cities), and more are coming (such as Hiptops with color screens). You might be worried about the down side of devices that can tell your friends where you are, in a nation where John Ashcroft would like to know too. Rest assured that Rheingold has covered that base, although other nations are not the US and it's hard to say what will happen when the full weight of the military-entertainment complex gets behind this stuff. Time will tell, and I'll tell you what, son: I'll be soaking in it.

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