Rise of the machines

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Alex Soojung-Kim Pang is research director of the Institute for the Future, a Silicon Valley think tank, and the author of "Empire and the Sun: Victorian Solar Eclipse Expeditions."

For over a decade, computer scientists have been talking about the coming age of “ubiquitous computing,” a world in which computers are embedded in virtually every manufactured object. We carry them with us everywhere and they communicate constantly with us and with one another. The big question is not whether the vision of a computer-saturated world could become reality. It’s already happening. In today’s cars, embedded microprocessors control everything from the transmission to the stereo; millions of people carry PDAs; and there are more cellphones worldwide than land lines. Thanks to the falling cost of microchips, sensors and RFID (radio frequency identification) tags, our children will live in a world in which nearly every manufactured object has rudimentary intelligence; where every space is saturated with sensing, computing and communication capability; and where handheld computers and cellphones are as common as wristwatches. Mobility and ubiquity will dissolve the distinctions we currently draw between the digital and physical worlds: We won’t have to choose between spending time online versus spending it with friends, or learning in the classroom versus learning online. The Internet won’t be some alternative “cyberspace” but part of our immediate, everyday physical world.

What will it be like to live in this world? Asking the question is like asking a century ago how electric motors would change the world: It would have taken a tremendous imaginative leap to see today’s electric toothbrushes and portable CD players in the heavy, hulking motors of 1900. But since technological changes that once took decades now take a few years, it’s important to make the effort. Howard Rheingold and Andy Clark predict the future that will arise from today’s brew of small, mobile computing technologies. Rheingold’s “Smart Mobs” describes a world of social groups supercharged by wireless communication and pervasive computing, while Clark’s “Natural-Born Cyborgs” argues that those same technologies will profoundly change the way we think, our world views and even our identities.

Rheingold has been studying vanguard technologies for two decades. “Smart Mobs” is something of a sequel to his 1993 book, “The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier.” Today the concept of virtual, or online, communities is well accepted, though it’s also clear that most of them will never command the same loyalty as neighborhoods, churches and other real-world institutions. One reason is that virtual communities are linked by computers and common interests but physically dispersed; the Internet connects people even as computers chain them to their desks. In myths, jinni and spirits often become powerful when they acquire bodies; so it is when virtual communities morph into flesh-and-blood ones. A growing number of people have discovered that mobile communication technologies (cellphones, text-messaging and Web-enabled handheld devices) are unmooring the Internet and telephony and enabling them to use the digital world to organize in the real world. The anti-globalization groups that in recent years have disrupted World Trade Organization meetings, for example, have learned to use websites and e-mail to spread the word of meetings or actions and text messaging and cellphones to coordinate their movements in real time. They have taken digital power to the streets.


Some of today’s smart mobs are interesting but short-lived -- and not even terribly smart. “Flash mobs” that stage performance-art events in San Francisco and New York are as ephemeral as they are attention-getting. But they demonstrate the potential of the mobile Internet to serve as an amplifier for collective action. Groups in Scandinavia and Japan (two countries with far higher rates of cellphone use than the U.S.) offer deeper clues as to what makes smart mobs special. Smart mobs self-organize, coordinating their actions without leaders; this gives them flexibility and resilience. They are good at cooperation, magnifying their power by sharing resources and information and harnessing the specialized skills and knowledge of individual members. The cleverest are learning to use software -- collaborative filters, like Amazon’s recommendations systems, to help people discover new interests; evaluation systems that let community members rate each other (used in Ebay and the Ubergeek site Slashdot); and “agents,” which perform various simple actions for their users -- to widen their reach, discover new members and determine whom they can trust.

Rheingold is one of the few writers whose books directly affect their subject. “Smart Mobs,” originally released in hardcover last year, has already played a major role in the flash-mob phenomenon, just as “The Virtual Community” helped popularize the notion that the Internet could be a community-building tool. “Smart Mobs” is exceptionally persuasive: Rheingold’s prose is vivid and powerful and he’s a great storyteller. He’s also a tireless anthropologist of the future: “Smart Mobs” swoops between laboratories at MIT, street corners in Tokyo, cafes in Stockholm and start-ups in Silicon Valley. In its enthusiasm, the book sometimes treats smart mobs as more mature and important than they are; my sense is that even well-connected, technologically savvy people are just discovering how powerful they can be. But for a futurist, seeing the future too clearly in the present is hardly a sin.

Cellphones have been especially important in the early growth of smart mobs. In most of the world, they’re relatively cheap and easier to get than land lines, and young and working-class people have adopted them enthusiastically. The demonstrators who brought down Philippine President Joseph Estrada in January 2001 included many working-class voters mobilized by text messaging; some two years later, an election day get-out-the-vote text messaging blitz aimed at young voters swept South Korean presidential candidate Roh Muh-hyun to victory. Cellphones have also brought a remarkable degree of flexibility to the social lives of younger users. Many teenagers no longer make fixed plans; they “approximeet,” converging in a neighborhood and text-messaging their way to a final destination. Cellphones have even begun to change their users’ bodies and physical abilities: Japanese youth have developed such dexterity with the tiny thumbboards on cellphones that they’re called oyayu bisoku (“the thumb tribe”) and use their thumbs where their parents use their fingers -- to ring doorbells and push elevator buttons, for example.

The Indiana University philosopher and cognitive scientist Andy Clark would undoubtedly note that this kind of change is continual. We are, as his book puts it, “natural-born cyborgs,” adapting to and evolving with our technologies. Think of cyborgs and you normally conjure up images of human/machine hybrids like the Terminator or the Borg of “Star Trek” -- bodies packed with computer chips and mechanical implants. That image, Clark argues, is completely misleading. You can put an ID chip in a pet, but no new cat/machine hybrid emerges -- nor do you need surgery to develop deep relationships with technologies. The equipment that athletes, musicians, and craftsmen use are extensions of themselves -- just as, for many writers, the process of writing is inextricable from thinking. We don’t think and then write; we think through writing. This ability to build new cognitive abilities by using technologies, Clark contends, is wired into us. Our perceptions and mental pictures of our bodies and the world around us are much more active and malleable than we realize: The world seems like a stable place, but our minds are constantly filtering information, filling in gaps, adding to our mental pictures as needed. Our brains avoid storing large amounts of data about our surroundings, preferring to update our perceptions depending on circumstances. Our eyes operate differently when we scan a room for a book as opposed to a face, for example. We think our minds are like libraries, but they’re more like search engines. This high-intensity mental processing is what enables humans to develop symbiotic relationships with technology. As Clark puts it, “we are natural-born cyborgs, forever ready to merge our mental activities with the operations of pen, paper, and electronics.” Being cyborgs is, in a sense, what makes us human.

Why does this matter? Scientists are now starting to experiment with implanting computing devices in people (most famously Kevin Warwick, a British professor of cybernetics, who is experimenting on himself), but if Clark is right, these forays are a technological dead end. Nevertheless, the tools of ubiquitous computing could have as great an effect on our bodies and minds as writing, the telegraph and television all put together. Clark is particularly eloquent in describing a future in which software agents co-evolve with us, gather information in our childhoods about our interests and preferences, grow ever more sophisticated in understanding us as we age and, for all intents and purposes, become extensions of ourselves.

Despite their very different emphases and approaches, “Smart Mobs” and “Natural-Born Cyborgs” don’t collide: They converge. They cover almost exactly the same technologies, and Rheingold’s story of the social effect of these technologies and Clark’s tale of their effects on individuals are two sides of a coin. Japanese teens may have developed a dazzling level of thumb dexterity, but they’ve done so as part of a larger social movement; that’s why they’re called thumb tribes. Likewise, “approximeeting” wouldn’t work if you and your friends didn’t all practice it. But it’s also likely that the technologies that change societies most powerfully are also the ones that are most psychologically or physically transformative. “Smart Mobs” and “Natural-Born Cyborgs” point to a future that resembles utopian science fiction.


Getting there will still require a lot of difficult technical, legal, and regulatory work. As anyone who uses mobile communication devices knows, we live in a world of fractured ubiquity: You have to work to find connectivity. The underlying infrastructures still need to grow and standardize. Rheingold and Clark also argue that we need to control the information we generate about ourselves. Today, information about our online habits is tracked by a variety of companies, none of which has broad knowledge of everything we buy or cares what we do with our purchases. The smart agents that will evolve with us cannot be the property of Microsoft or Amazon; they’ll have to belong to us and go everywhere we do. It will also be urgently necessary to understand how agents process information, if we are ever to allow them to act on our behalf. Finally, both authors warn, these technologies could promote either totalitarian or anarchic dystopias.

But imagine that it all works. Imagine our children carrying -- or just as likely, wearing -- more computing power than sits on your desk today. Imagine them living with a constant background sense of being connected to family and friends; working and playing in smart mobs; pooling experiences and knowledge with trusted humans and virtual agents; and experiencing the Internet as a deep, abiding presence, sometimes on the edge of their awareness, sometimes in the center, but always there. After a time, their abilities to organize and act collectively will recede into the backgrounds of their consciousness. At this point, smart mobs become another of Clark’s technologies -- another tool that quietly extends the abilities of humans, shaping our thought but rarely thought about.

Talk of cyborgs, hive minds, and collective consciousness may sound fantastic (or at least very Californian). But the ability to use technologies to collectively extend our bodies and minds is what distinguished Homo sapiens from our Neanderthal competitors, encouraged the development of speech, allowed us to hunt big game and practice agriculture, drove us to build cities and invent writing. It isn’t science fiction. It’s civilization.