Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution

Summary of: Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution

Author(s) / Editor(s)

Smart mobs emerge when communication and computing technologies amplify human talents for cooperation and collective action of both beneficial and destructive kinds.

Publication Reference

Published in/by
Perseus Books


  • Technologies, the communication media they make possible, and the social practices that emerge when sufficient numbers of people use the media coevolve with forms of collective action in the social, cultural, economic, and political spheres.
  • Reputation, the lubricant of collective action, can be technologically mediated. EBay solves the Prisoner's Dilemma problem posed by unsecured transactions through its feedback system. A critical uncertainty about the future of smart mobs is the future development or lack of development of social accounting systems.
  • Like species that find and flourish in environmental niches, humans quickly explore and colonize new possibility spaces opened by media. At the same time, the tension between power and counter-power and power and knowledge that was elucidated by Foucault comes into play - those without wealth and power seek to gain, those who already have wealth and power seek to protect.
  • Media cartels and government agencies are seeking to reimpose the regime of the broadcast era in which the customers of technology could be deprived of the power to create and left only with the power to consume. The battles over digital rights management, spectrum regulation, trusted computing, copyright protection that are playing out in courts and treaty organizations are about this tension between power and counter-power.
  • Are the citizens of tomorrow going to be users, like the PC owners and website creators who turned technology to widespread innovation? Or will they be consumers, constrained from innovation and locked into the technology and business models of entrenched interests?
  • The nation-state, science, and capitalism emerged from the literacies enabled by the printing press. Forms of governance, knowledge, and commerce are already beginning to change; now, in the earliest stages of these changes, what we know and don't know about the social impacts of smart mob technologies has the power to influence the shape of these changes.

Technology, history, and social impacts of technology are most often framed in terms of hardware, software, and finance, but communication technologies have the potential to change the way people think, communicate, and organize social groups. These impacts are sometimes framed by Moore's law (microprocessors and chips grow more powerful and less expensive over time), Metcalfe's law (the value of a technical network grows as the square of the number of nodes grows) and Reed's Law (when technical networks enable people to form social groups, the value of the network grows as two raised to the power of the number of nodes - much faster than just the rate of growth of technical networks). The group-formation enabled by the Internet makes it possible for people who don't know each other and who are located in different parts of the world to connect with each other in regard to shared interests - economic, social, cultural, and political. When communication technology enables people to organize collective action in these spheres, civilizations change. Now that the power of computing and communication has untethered from the desktop and leaped into billions of pockets, the forms of collective action are erupting in places and spheres of life where computation and communication had never reached before.

At the point where billions of people have access to personal communications and the instant information that the Internet provides, the aspects of cooperation and collective action discussed by Axelrod, Ostrom, and others comes into play - the capabilities of the emerging mobile mediasphere enable forms of collective action that were not possible before.

Moore's law means that the quantitative capabilities of chip-based devices grow so quickly that they translate into qualitative changes over periods of decades; today, billions of people carry devices that are thousands of times more powerful than the first personal computers, and cost a fraction of the price. At the same time, the users of these devices discover and exploit communication capabilities, social potential, political leverage, economic opportunities that were not dreamed of by those who designed, manufactured and sold the technologies. The technologies that make smart mobs possible are in the earliest stages of development, similar to the state of the personal computer in 1980 and the Internet in 1990. Yet the political demonstrations and electoral leverage that manifested in the Philippines, Korea, Spain, the USA and elsewhere - deposing governments and electing others - show the potentially disruptive power of smart mobs, even in their earliest stages.

At the same time, primitive ad-hoc computation collectives such as SETI@home and folding@home indicate new forms of computing emerging from the collective, voluntary efforts of millions of computer users. And GPS chips add the power of location-based services to the mix: people are mobilizing social networks and information in the immediate time and space.

Economically, the ability to gain profit by sharing with others, rather than only by competing - as manifested by Amazon, Google, eBay, open source software and other enterprises - is making a new kind of economic enterprise possible. Commerce is ancient, markets are as old as the crossroads, but capitalism is only about 500 years old, enabled by technologies such as joint stock ownership companies, shared liability insurance organizations, double entry bookkeeping. Now, the peer production methods exhibited by open source communities and other enterprises hint that humans have not stopped inventing new forms of economic collective action.