Smart Mobs

Smart Mobs

My first Epinions book review, of Howard Rheingold’s Smart Mobs, written back in 2003. And I did visit Hachiko’s statue afterwards.

This book made me laugh, it made me cry. And it made me join Epinions.

The crying (just a manly tear) was inspired by the story of Hachiko, the famed Japanese dog who waited loyally every day for his owner to arrive at the train station from work, long after the owner had died at work and failed to return. After Hachiko passed away, still waiting for his master at the station, a statue was placed there in his honor.

What does this have to do with “the next social revolution”? Well, nothing, but it is one of the early backdrops in Howard Rheingold’s book, where he notices the profound integration of wireless communication, in particular the vastly popular i-mode service from NTT Docomo, into the lifestyle of Japanese teenagers.

From there, the author jets around the world, observing Scandinavian text-messagers, MIT geeks wearing computers (this is the part where I laughed), wi-fi activism, and self-moderating peer-review communities like Epinions, eBay and Slashdot.

The title “Smart Mobs” aptly describes the mass demonstration orchestrated by cell phone and pager that resulted in the downfall of a presidency in the Philippines. It seems a stretch to cast the same label on the book’s other elements, which are rather loosely connected by the element of, well, being wired (and in some cases, wired wirelessly, so to speak).

In fact, reading this book is somewhat like reading two year’s issues of Wired magazine. After turning the last page, I have the reader’s equivalent of an ice-cream headache. Mr. Rheingold writes in a first-person travelogue style interspersed with musings, but the tasty treat here is the pure breadth of topics, ranging from the enabling technologies to the behavior of the sociological groups and the philosophical, legal and mathematical implications of it all.

Consequently, as you read this book, you’ll find yourself bouncing in a web-surfing manner from the congregating habits of short-attention-span teenagers to the state of the cell phone industry in the U.S. versus Japan/Europe to game theory to internet-based peer-reviewing/self-moderating communities to Lawrence Lessig’s work on the Internet as a commons for the public good to the frequency-hopping technology invented by Hedy Lamarr and government policy on allocating spectrum.

Don’t expect any in-depth explanation and don’t take anything at face-value in this enthusiastic and breathless rush through the wired present and potential future. For example, the author repeats the marketing-invented tidbit that eBay was created to provide a way to auction Pez dispensers on-line. And while i-mode has been a spectacular success, both wireless internet and wireless games have had a tough go both in the US and in Europe.

But this book is a great starting point for any topic you find interesting, and there’s bound to be something to interest you. For example, I’ve googled onto Epinions before, and as a programmer I’ve glanced at Slashdot, but only after reading this book have I taken a closer look. Now I’ve tried my hand at a few reviews for Epinions, and I’m comparing the peer-rating and community moderation systems at various open-source sites like Slashdot and Advogato. After I read up on game theory and Lessig’s treatises, maybe I’ll take a trip to Japan and visit the statue of Hachiko.

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