At the very end of the book, the author quotes James Madison as carved into the marble of the Library of Congress: “…a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” And there it is–Howard Rheingold has documented the next level of the Internet, in which kids typing 60 words a minute with one thumb, “swarms” of people converging on a geospatial node guided only by their cell phones; virtual “CIAs” coming together overnight to put together massive (and accurate) analysis with which to take down a corporate or government position that is fradulent–this is the future and it is bright.As I go back through the book picking out highlights, a few of the following serve to capture the deep rich story being told by this book–breakthroughs coming from associations of amateurs rather than industry leaders; computer-mediated trust brokers–collective action driven by reputation; detailed minute-by-minute information about behaviors of entire populations (or any segment thereof); texting as kid privacy from adult hearing; the end of the telephone number as relevant information; the marriage of geospatial and lifestyle/preference information to guide on the street behavior; the perennial problem of “free riders” and how groups can constrain them; distributed processing versus centralized corporate lawyering; locations with virtual information; shirt labels with their transportation as well as cleaning history (and videos of the sex partners?)–this is just mind-boggling.
Finally, the author deserves major credit for putting all this techno-marvel stuff into a deep sociological and cultural context. He carefully considers the major issues of privacy, control, social responsibility, and group behavior. He ends on very positive notes, but also notes that time is running out–we have to understand where all this is going, and begin to change how we invest and how we design everything from our clothing to our cities to our governments.
This is an affirming book–the people that pay taxes can still look forward to the day when they might take back control of their government and redirect benefits away from special interests and back toward the commonwealth. Smart mobs, indeed.