BROOKE GLADSTONE: We're back with On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. And now for the latest communications phenomenon: Smart Mobs! Recently in the New York Times Magazine writer Clive Thompson [sp?] described Prince William's predicament. A student at the University of St. Andrew's, he'll try to go for a quiet drink somewhere, but immediately he's mobbed by a hundred young women who inform each other of his every move through text messages on their cell phones. One random sighting sent to 10 friends who each relay it to another 10 - result is a smart mob!
CLIVE THOMPSON: And what you get is something that works almost like the ways bees talk to each other in a hive -- no single bee is controlling the way the swarm works, yet it seems to move as though it has a mind of its own.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sometimes these collections of people can become rather sinister.
CLIVE THOMPSON:Quite right. Down in Nigeria, when they had the Miss World Pageants, those riots were at least partly inspired by smart mobs. What happened was when the newspaper article came out that was praising the Miss World Pageant and saying that Mohammed would have chosen one of the women for a partner, someone saw the article, got really incensed, and immediately sent out text messages to all of his friends and they all did the same so that within minutes there were thousands of people in the city who knew about the article and were storming over to the offices of the publication. So there you had a smart mob that was not democratic and not good, which makes sense of course because you know we've had mobs around for a long time, and sometimes they're democratic and sometimes they're good and sometimes they're about lynching.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: They can also be an instrument of political movements, can't they? I mean they were used a few years ago back in Seattle!
CLIVE THOMPSON:Sure. The whole reason that the protests in Seattle over the World Trade Organization happened was because they didn't operate like a normal protest. A normal protest is centralized, and it's very easy for the police to disperse them if they want, because they're all in one place. What was happening in Seattle is that they were mobile devices ranging from walkie-talkies to cell phones to other things to work in groups of maybe 50, and so you had, you know, thousands of people composed of small cells of 50 people who if they needed to could all break up, you know, disappear through the streets and then re-form somewhere else.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:You were telling me before we started the interview that Japan, the place that we normally look for high tech advances is a place where we'll probably see this thing move - evolve to the next level.
CLIVE THOMPSON: Absolutely. Over in Japan you've got phones that can already take really robust pictures; they can - they're beginning to be able to send video - they can do incredibly complex forms of networking - and there, there's a lot of indications that this is going to change even the way that we think of gathering information and sharing it with each other.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Well give me an example. Right now you can send still pictures from one person to another over a cell phone. Pretty soon you'll be able to send even moving pictures over a cell phone. Is this how people are going to one day get their news?
CLIVE THOMPSON: Absolutely. I think that -- I've heard this prediction and I think it's true -- that in the next year there is going to be a major disaster or news event in, in Hong Kong or Tokyo and the first images you're going to see of it are going to be taken by a hundred people who are right next to it with cell phones, taking video, taking pictures or sending text about it. And CNN's going to use that video and use those pictures, because they're going to be there before the news cameras arrive. In a sense, what smart mobs do is turn everybody into a guerilla, on-the-fly reporter.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Now Howard Reingold [sp?] who coined the term "smart mob" argues that the convergence of all of these wireless communications technologies will one day create shifts along the lines of those that began to occur when people first settled into villages and formed nation-states -- that this is going to re-configure the way that people gather -- the way that people move -- the way that they communicate. Do you think he's exaggerating just a tad?
CLIVE THOMPSON: You know in the long run, I don't think so. Because he is talking about something that's an extension of what's happening on the internet already which is that we now have very real and powerful communities that aren't bounded by geography, and the thing that smart mobs with cell phones and mobile devices does is that it adds an extra dimension of weirdness to it, because you know you're standing in the street now, but you're connected to other people all over the world or in different places or maybe a block over. So you have these extra layers of community. I can't even say exactly what that's going to do, but I know it's going to be significant and disruptive.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well Clive, thank you very much.
CLIVE THOMPSON: Good to be here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Clive Thompson wrote about smart mobs for the New York Times Magazine's second annual Year in Ideas. [MUSIC]