Zylstra on collective phenomena…

Ton Zylstra met with Smart Mobs author and Well.com internet superhero Howard Rheingold recently, which he reports on wi...

November 16, 2004

Ton Zylstra met with Smart Mobs author and Well.com internet superhero Howard Rheingold recently, which he reports on with real passion and optimism:

“Howard Rheingold told us his stories of the observations that triggered him into writing Smart Mobs. (also see Jill Walkers excellent notes from two days before when Rheingold presented in Bergen) Several of his observations were:

- in 2000 he was in Tokyo and saw how 1 in 4 on the sidewalks was looking at their phones.

- in 2000 he saw in Finland how youths were looking at their phones, smiling, showing each other stuff, even while in conversation with older people at the same time. A parallel event seemed to take place.

- in the Phillipines within hours after the government seemed to censor tv transmission about impeachment hearings of the president, thousands of people showed up on a central square in black clothes. Not by central organization but by sms-ing eachother.

The interesting thing to Howard Rheingold was that everywhere he went he saw these new phenomena and heard it describe in the same words. Metaphors like birds flocking to seemingly random places, to suddenly move on again.

He then realised that mobile phones were growing into multifunctional devices, enabling Collective Action….”

The trouble is that simply observing these phenomena doesn’t give us any real insight into why they happen, or how they happen. It doesn’t make the phenomena replicable.

And this realisation really offends the anally retentive, desk-tidying, alphabeticising neurotic former accountant within me. I know I should simply take a Johnnie Moore-esque acceptance of my great unknowingness, but I just can’t bear to!

Being an idealist, I want to harness all this passion; multiply it, turn it into a software engine and focus it on REALLY BIG things. Not SMS dating or internet chit-chat, but real-world social problems. When was the last time the internet really triggered a specific social or environmental benefit? Experience suggests that dumbmobs are much more common than smartmobs.

The reason I care is that all the biggest and most intractable problems of our age demand a collective solution.

Poverty, famine, biodiversity protection, human disease, war…

The ‘biggies’ all demand solutions which are transnational. But they also demand a process of checks and balances. Of dialogue and consultation. And they are all susceptible to analysis.

As Ton so rightly dreams… in theory, the internet should be great at this.!

But it’s just a technology. A spade can dig an allotment, or bludgeon someone to death.

The Internet simply magnifies human nature; it cannot alter it.

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