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Interview: Howard Rheingold

Howard Rheingold is the well-known author of Smart Mobs and many other books describing the evolution of our societies. His last book predicted the transformation of our society into a mobile one. Four years later, and with thousands of posts published on the collective blog organized around this theme, his forecast is more than confirmed. As one of the futurologists who can detect the emerging technology trends behind our daily lives, I wanted to know what Howard is thinking in 2006. And he was kind enough to agree for an interview which was conducted by e-mail in mid-June. Below are large excerpts from our exchange.

Before starting this interview, you need to know Howard. Here is a recent picture of him talking with his students (Credit for photo: Justin Hall).

Howard talking with his students

Now, let’s listen to Howard.

Roland: Can you tell us about the major changes you saw during these four years?

Howard: On the mobile front, we’re seeing explosive diffusion of the basic technology, the mobile phone — close to three billion of them now, in a world with six billion people. More than 100 million of the phones are also cameras. A trillion SMS messages in 2005.

And of course the use of these technologies to mobilize collective action continued after my book was published — the citizen journalist service OhmyNews coordinated a last-minute online get-out-the-vote campaign that tipped the Korean presidential election, and the Spanish elections were also tipped by a phone-to-phone text message campaign.

The rise of the blogosphere, the Howard Dean campaign, the emergence of Wikipedia, continued growth of open source software, the success of James Surowiecki’s book “The Wisdom of Crowds,” the publication of Steve Weber’s “The Success of Open Source,” Pierre Levy’s “Collective Intelligence,” Yochai Benkler’s “The Wealth of Networks,” the rise of citizen journalist and citizen news-sharing sites like Digg and Reddit, the role of text-messages in breaking news of the SARS epidemic in China, the dramatic cameraphone images sent directly to the Web from the site of the London tube bombing, the collective emergence response online to the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina disasters, the role of blogs and SMS in the civil disturbances across France in 2005, the success of YouTube and Google Video, del.icio.us and Flickr, are all evidence that smartmob phenomena continues to grow.

The power of the technologies packed into mobile devices continues to multiply, the diffusion of devices to all parts of the world and socioeconomic strata broadens, the spread of knowledge about how to use technologies to organize political, economic, social, cultural collective action quickens.

It is in the convergence of the technical, cognitive, and social forces generates that the real power of smart mobs — for both constructive and destructive.

Roland: Do you think that some parts of the world are left behind this (r)evolution? And is there anything we can do with things such as $100 PCs or $20 phones?

Howard: Inexpensive phones and pay-as-you go services are already spreading mobile phone technology to many parts of that world that never had a wired infrastructure. In terms of the people who had been left behind by previous technology revolutions, the mobile phone has already reached more people from more different walks of life than the PC or Internet did. As chips grow more powerful, even the least expensive phones will become cameras and Internet terminals.

The most important benefit of affordable PCs, phones, and bandwidth is encouraging the growth of literacies in the use of ICTs for the purposes of the poorest people in the world. The diffusion of the physical technologies is already being driven by the market.

Roland: Do you have any recipes for a better world, regarding such issues as energy, environment, education or even politics?

Howard: Pay attention. Practice compassion. ;-)

Of course, I believe that open technologies like the Internet promote innovation and provide political, economic, and cultural opportunities to entire populations that used to be reserved for elites, and I fear that the current efforts by incumbent wealth and power holders might successfully enclose what was once open.

Extension of copyright into every realm, digital rights management building control into cultural products, trusted computing baking control into the hardware itself, the death of net neutrality recentralizing control of the formerly radically decentralized network — all these battles in political arenas, financed by huge amounts of money, are going the way of the powers-that-be.

I don’t think there’s anything inherently democratic in new media. Many-to-many communication and commons based peer production will produce social and economic capital only if large numbers of people understand what is at stake in these esoteric techno-regulatory conflicts and take the power that is temporarily theirs into their hands and do something with it.

Roland: Where will we be in 2010? Do you see a new massive trend emerging (or more than one) affecting the whole world?

Howard: This business with climate change is going to be a lot more obvious, the odds of very big terrorist or natural disasters goes up, and it isn’t at all clear whether authoritarian states will be able to use the surveillance powers of our otherwise wonderfully empowering and democratic communication network to institute systems of control far more effective than Orwell’s obsolete visions. Much will depend upon which way the battle for open systems goes.Openness and participation are antidotes to surveillance and control.

Roland: What is the future of your blog? and of the blogs in general? Do you see something new coming?

Howard: I maintain more and more blogs every year. ;-) I am the cheerleader for two communities of bloggers (including yourself, of course): smartmobs and cooperationcommons. I use wikis for the courses I teach in participatory media at University of California and Stanford. I use social bookmarking and phototagging and video sharing services every day. I certainly hope something new doesn’t come along too quickly. I still need to get into podcasting and web video. Anything more will require doubling the number of hours in my day.

Roland: Can you give us some tips or advises about the immediate future?

Howard: The enlightenment is under attack. Wake up to the necessity for preserving democracy, science, and open access to the means of cultural production and distribution.

Roland: Do you plan another book? If yes, what will be the subject?

Howard: Not yet. I’m concentrating on continuing to catalyze an interdisciplinary study of cooperation and collective action, and creating curricula for teaching young people about civic engagement through the use of participatory media. I think I have another couple of years to go before I’m satisfied in either of those realms. But you never know!

Roland: Thank you Howard. And I sure hope to read your next book before 2010!!

[Disclaimer: I’m a member of the editorial board of the Smart Mobs blog where I wrote a weekly press review.]

Sources: Howard Rheingold, June 15, 2006; and additional links

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Roland Piquepaille
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