Friday, April 09, 2010

Smart Mobs

Smart Mobs is the title of one of Howard Rheingold's several timely tomes.

He regaled us with stories at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall last night, his name in lights.

Then a few of us adjourned to the nearby Heathman for a quiet dinner in his honor. Lynne Taylor praised his multi-colored jacket whereas I had been noticing the shoes.

The idea of a "smart mob" may sound oxymoronic, or at least to me it does. Mobs are notoriously stupid, get stampeded into war by pundits, then get stuck in the ensuing quagmire. Mobs beget mob psychologies, mob violence.

Howard copped to the fact that he'd wanted an "edgy" term in that title, as he shares this same ambivalence about mobs. With SMS messages, tweets, or through the blogosphere, humans are newly able to trigger avalanche-like political phenomena, either for better or for worse.

We're of course hoping for better, for alternatives to violence.

For that to happen, we need to tell ourselves different stories than the old "competition is everything" story the Social Darwinists concocted, mostly to rationalize and justify an insane level of selfishness.

The Prisoner's Dilemma and The Tragedy of the Commons are among the corollary narratives that academia uses, to keep our economists on the same page. But what says empirical science about such narratives? We're free to question them, discover exceptions. Lynn Margulis helped unveil the deeper roots of biological processes: cooperation, collaboration and what Stuart Kaufman calls exaptation.

If we're technologically enabling ourselves to act in concert, to self-organize on an even greater scale, then we had better evidence some benign and philanthropic intentions towards our thronging environment.

Upgrading our programming beyond these old social mores is both scientifically sound and in our own best interest. Altruism and selfishness are not always that counter-posed. Sometimes what's best for you is also what's best for me. As GWB once put it, in words we could all understand: the game is not "zero sum".

Howard began his lecture by stepping through the "fourth wall" and saying directly to his audience how much he appreciated Portland, Oregon. He'd won a National Merit Scholarship in the 1960s and had picked Reed College as the most alluring. He has not regretted this decision, admires Reed to this day.

The audience was rather intimate, as this was a re-scheduled talk and not heavily advertised. When it came time for Q&A, practically no one left. The audience was enthralled with Howard and his topic, wanted to learn more.

The Wanderers were present to help keep wheels turning. Allen Taylor joined us. I praised him on his blog, specifically the account of the plane crash he'd experienced.

Howard spends enormous amounts of time in Cyberia, is one of its more gifted citizens. He'd been our guest ISEPP speaker back in 1993, showing us The Well on his 2400 baud modem, working off some Apple Macintosh or something. Don Wardwell remarked later that this had been one of the more pivotal and important talks in his career, as he was just on his way to Anaheim to deliver a key speech, and Howard's anticipating the Internet had made a big impression, informed what he spoke about.

I'm pretty sure I was in the audience for that talk as well, remember the jacket.

The Tragedy of the Commons for example: you need not believe that it's true in all cases. The man pushing this story was fanatical about birth control, had an agenda. In fact, according to recent research by Elinor Ostrom, a Nobel prize winner (economics), a commons will sometimes be governed through social networking, a set of relationships, possibly non-contractual yet pegged to reputation, a kind of currency.

A smart mob, not necessarily litigious, will evolve a faith and practice that begets long term viability. True, outsiders may crash the party and break the rules, over fish, take too many lobsters. Conflicts and competition are not just things of the past. Defending a commons from interlopers may sound oxymoronic, yet consider open source software, free to everyone, yet protected from corruption by various mechanisms, by hackers, by security measures.

Like, you don't want your factory-fresh copy of Python from to "phone home" -- which it may appear to be doing when IDLE boots with a cryptic message, but that's all stuff, no yakking with some server farm, no trojan horse.

"What's a wiki?" Joe Arnold wanted to know after the lecture. I explained about Ward Cunningham's invention, about WikiWords, as well as the etymological roots of the word among the Maori.

During the dinner, I met up with an Airstreamer and we yakked about eclipse chasing and matters bizmotic. We're both bloggers.

Everyone I overheard expressed satisfaction with Rheingold's talk. I like the fact that he's teaching young people some serious Internet skills. There's this stereotype of young people somehow taking to new technologies like fish to water, without having to work at it, while the older folk are off the hook, because novelty is not for them.

In some subcultures, the oldsters work at staying one step ahead and actually get to teach useful stuff to those with less real time experience.

Howard typifies such an oldster. When a student freaks out that she'll never be able to keep up with all these Twitter and Facebook people, he reminds her that some of these media are not "queues" not in-boxes. They're more like fast moving rivers, are designed to be sampled. Reel in some fish maybe, but don't feel obligated to read every tweet. It's not one human's responsibility to be omniscient, even if the technology supports moving in that direction.

He teaches about RSS (i.e. how to subscribe to notifications of changes, rather than having to check if something has changed). Maybe learn about "de-tagging" if you think that's a step towards your career goal (one of his stories).

No, young people have to work at it too. Some just stumble around in Second Life, feel foolish and unproductive. A lot of these toys are just that: toys.

On the other hand, serious events have been triggered thanks to this new found ability of networked technologies to trigger smart mobs. In the Philippines, the Ukraine, Korea...

I also thought of Carrot Mob closer to home, a consciously designed institution with clear positive intent. We could use some more designs of that nature.