IT gives mobs new purpose

Howard Rheingold has intriguing perspectives on the social effects of IT in its broadest sense, in establishing communities whose world-views are changed and their functioning improved by their exchange of data.

Smart Mobs by Howard Rheingold (Perseus Publishing, $US26)

Howard Rheingold has intriguing perspectives on the social effects of IT in its broadest sense, in establishing communities whose world-views are changed and their functioning improved by their exchange of data.

This runs from the role of cellphone and PC networks in assembling an instant demonstration to help overturn the Estrada government of the Philippines, to “cyborgs” (people who look at the world literally through digitally-enhanced spectacles) and the comprehensive labelling of foods with radio-frequency ID tags readable with a handheld device. The last may seem some distance from the others, but fits squarely into the theme, as it gives an electronically enhanced view of a small part of the world to a particular group, who care passionately about what they eat.

The broad view of the role of a constant cloud of usually wireless data in establishing and maintaining communities also offers a perspective on the narrower world of day-to-day IT management. Former IT manager Peter van Dyk at Macdonald's New Zealand has testified that the company’s introduction of wireless produced unlooked-for benefits in the form of staffers carrying their phones with them and being always available without the annoying indirection of a landline call passed to cellphone (see You want wireless with those fries?). They preserve privacy on certain calls by walking out of the open-plan offices and taking the call in the carpark; mundane examples of the business-process change wrought by mobility of information. Reading Smart Mobs could set the minds of IT managers working on novel ways to bring staff, customers and information together to, in Rheingold’s words, “raise the IQ of the organisation”.

And what is the legion of open-source developers constantly tweaking Linux and its related applications, but a “smart mob”? It hasn’t (yet) overturned a government, but it’s drastically changed the IT outlook of quite a few.

Like Scott Jenson (see Mobile phone internet 'blind alley') Rheingold comments on the misdirection and lack of direction among mobile phone vendors in trying to establish markets. While others struggled and expired in promoting a narrow technically-inspired view of mobile use, Japan’s NTT DoCoMo quietly triumphed with I-Mode; largely, Rheingold says, because it brought in a non-technician who had never even used the internet, to offer a fresh perspective on the potential market.

Rheingold highlights the contrasting view of the “mobs” versus government and big business when he writes about the allocation of radio spectrum by auction or decree in contrast to the free sharing made possible by the various forms of 802.11 protocol and the phenomena of spread-spectrum devices, frequency-hopping radio and mesh networks, like New Zealand’s IndraNet.

The conflict of interest presented by cable-TV companies doubling as internet infrastructure providers sounds a dark note. With the assistance of the US Federal Communications Commission, Rheingold warns, the forces of Big Media could lock up parts of the internet infrastructure and dictate how it will be used.

The wealth of references (many web-references) dotted through Smart Mobs provide reading for another year on these significant forces in the evolution of the IT industry, commerce and society.

Footnote: one jarring detail that a proofreader really should have picked up; the consistent misspelling of “minuscule” as “miniscule”. And while most readers should be used to oddities like “coworker” wrought by the American aversion to hyphens, I think the cyborg’s chapter’s coinage for ordinary humans, “noncyborgs”, is best not perpetuated.

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