Social Forces 83.4 (2005) 1765-1767
Howard Rheingold's latest book is not intended to be scholarly research so it is not entirely fair to assess it by strict academic standards. That being said, what then should sociologists take from this book? The book's greatest strength is that it focuses on digital technology, in particular the mobile Internet. This technology is increasingly relevant not to an elite few, but to people who use communication technology to maintain familial relationships, conduct business (both legal and illegal), and engage in paid labor, and, of course, to the academics who study such behaviors. Rheingold goes beyond the desktop computer and the mobile phone to render visible the digital technology of which non-technologists are usually not aware. If Rheingold's account of cultures and communities in the age of instant access reads like science fiction, it is in part because the reality of digital technology — what it can do — bears more than a passing resemblance to science fiction novels.
Smart Mobs provides an eight-chapter walking tour of what Rheingold enthusiastically calls "the most relevant social science observation on mobile telephone use" (24) on the levels of individual personality, immediate social network and neighborhood, and society. The introductory chapter introduces Rheingold's fascination with the interactions of physical space, people, and mobile phones. In the second chapter, Technologies of Cooperation, Rheingold attempts to put mobile phones in the context of a few theories of social groups informed by social network analysis, biology, psychology, and economics. In the third chapter, Rheingold provides clear explanations of technologies related to mobile phones like peer-to-peer computing, distributed processing, and grid computing. His fourth chapter focuses on sentient technologies, so called because of the embedded chips that can "sense, receive, store, and transmit information" (85), thus enabling scientists to link geography and information in novel ways.
The chapter that will interest a sociological audience is the fifth one, in which Rheingold claims that the "most profoundly transformative potential of connecting human social proclivities to the efficiency of information technology is the chance to do new things together, the potential for cooperating on scales and in ways never before possible" (114). He describes the import of reputation and its managers for digitally-based systems like eBay. In the sixth chapter, Rheingold reviews the implications, including policy, of the transition from wired to wireless technologies. In chapter seven, he provides a few concrete examples of what he would characterize as smart mobs, pointing to the 2001 presidential election in the Philippines, in which residents and activists relied heavily on text messages sent on their mobile phones to coordinate protests. In his eighth and final chapter, Rheingold discusses what he sees as the implication of the "always on" nature of the mobile Internet, focusing only, as technologists always do, on the specter of surveillance.
Smart Mobs' greatest strength, its focus on digital communication technology and social action, also turns out to be its greatest shortcoming. Sociologists who study community, social movements, participatory demography, cooperation, and perhaps even information and communication technologies (ICTs), will be frustrated by Rheingold's privileging of technology over the at least equally important contexts in which technologies exist. This problem is apparent in the very idea of a smart mob, the most sociologically intriguing aspect of the book, which is neither defined nor discussed in enough detail to satisfy a sociological audience. Rheingold characterizes smart mobs as "consisting of people who are able to act in concert even if they don't know each other . . . [they] cooperate in ways never before possible because they carry devices that possess both communication and computing capabilities" (xii). Rheingold purposely intends the concept of a smart mob to be visionary and provocative, reminding readers that "smart mobs aren't a 'thing' that you can point to with one finger or describe with two words, any more than 'the Internet' was a 'thing' you could point to" (182).
However, for a sociologically informed audience, the discussion of new forms...