A smart revolution

3rd January 2003 at 00:00
Smart Mobs - The Next Social Revolution, Howard Rheingold. Perseus Publishing, pound;16.47.

Smart Mobs is Howard Rheingold's odyssey into the "Looking Glass" world of ad hocracies, communities that use networked, wireless, "pervasive" technologies and which have sprung up like fairy rings worldwide in the last three years.

His personal epiphany came when he saw teenagers texting in the late 1990s at Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo, the most mobile-phone-dense neighbourhood in the world: "When I looked at the technical underpinnings of telephone texting, I found those early texters were walking around with an always-on connection to the internet in their hands. The tingling in my forebrain turned into a buzz. When you have a persistent connection to the internet, you have access to a great deal more than a communication channel."

Now he journeys around the world, visiting state-of-the art technology companies and not just the blue-skies Ramp;D divisions of DoCoMo, Microsoft, Nokia, but also grassroots communities making the process of ubicomp (ubiquitous computing) a reality.

On the way - just like Alice - he meets a host of characters and scenarios, virtual and real: thumb and texting tribes; lovegeties, devices that light up when you are physically near a compatible partner; smartifacts; advertainment; wearable computers; Swarm intelligence; Generation Text; glasses that will give you information about your environment, all connected to networks of chips embedded in furniture, clothes, buildings and, dare I say it, skin.

But throughout, Rheingold's focus is on the human activity behind the technology. He tracks his phenomenon with a detached eye, taking in the development of a cultural shift: "Smart mobs emerge when communication and computing technologies amplify human talents for co-operation. The impacts of smart mob technology already appear to be beneficial and destructive."

So how does education fit in? Rheingold's book shows that computers, wireless networks and the ways communities use them are going to become fairly common in the next 18 months. When you can hold the computing power of a desktop in your hand - one that is always on, connected to broadband, works wirelessly and rarely fails - you need a new model of how to manage that resource and how you interact with others.

Tablet computers are just around the corner and will be on view at BETT for the first time. BlueTooth and Wi-Fi enabled organisers and phones are just arriving in the UK. Combine this with nano-technology, quantum computing and Curriculum Online, the biggest semantic web educational resource on the planet, and you begin to see the possibilities for teaching, learning and education in the 21st century.

Leon Cych


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