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The Age of Swarming

August 17 2002

 

At a moment's notice, the mob gathers - thanks to the mobile phone, which is propelling nothing less than a social revolution, writes Joel Garreau.

At the University of St Andrews, where he studies art history, the royal hottie Prince William can't even go out for drinks with friends without being tracked electronically by a pack of wired women.

"A quite sophisticated text messaging network has sprung up," an "insider" told the Scottish Daily Record. "If William is spotted anywhere in the town, then messages are sent out" on his admirers' mobile phones. "It starts off quite small. The first messages are then forwarded to more girls and so on. It just has a snowball effect. Informing 100 girls of his movements takes just seconds." At one bar, the prince had to be moved to a safe location when more than 100 "lusty ladies", so alerted, suddenly mobbed the place, like cats responding to the sound of a can opener.

Chalk up another life changed by "swarming", a behaviour that is transforming social, work, military and even political lives worldwide, especially among the young. It is the unintended consequence of people, mobile phones in hand, learning that they can co-ordinate instantly and leaderlessly.

"It's the search for peak experience, something that's really going to be special," says Adam Eidinger, a local political organiser. "It happened to me just last week. There was a concert at Fort Reno [Washington DC] - Fugazi." His mobile rang. "There's this guy, Bernardo, who's one of the biggest swarmer mobile-phone people I know." Came the restless call: "'Where are you? There are all these people here!' And he wasn't just calling us. He called 25 people. Pretty soon everybody he knew was sitting on the grass, and none of them knew they were going to be there that morning."

 

This is the precise opposite of a 1962-style American Graffiti world. Then you had to go to a place - the strip, the drive-in - to find out what was going on. Now, you find out what's going on by mobile phone, and go to the place where it's happening.

Swarming is a classic example of how once-isolated individuals are discovering a new way to organise order out of chaos, without guidance. It reverses the idea that geography, in an Internet age, has become irrelevant - the whole point is to bring people together in one location for face-to-face contact.

We are seeing a profound shift in society, says Howard Rheingold, the digital technology guru who helped pioneer virtual communities (he invented the phrase). Mobile phones "amplify human talents for co-operation", he says.

This is by no means all fun and games. The gear was used by "some of its earliest adopters to support democracy and by others to co-ordinate terrorist attacks", says Rheingold, whose forthcoming book is called Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution.

Smart mobs are a serious realignment of human affairs, in which leaders may determine an overall goal, but the actual execution is created on the fly by participants at the lowest possible level who are constantly innovating, Rheingold notes. They respond to changing situations without requesting or needing permission. In some cases, even the goal is determined collaboratively and non-hierarchically. It is the warp-speed embodiment of the maxim, "There go my people, I must run to catch up with them for I am their leader."

The key to the power of mobiles - including hybrids like two-way pagers, BlackBerry emailers, personal digital assistants merged with phones, wireless laptops, and phones merged with two-way radios - is that they liberate people from their desktop telephones and computers, moving the action out to that much larger portion of life that encompasses wherever and whenever humans roam. "My friends call me on my mobile even when I'm at home," says one teenager who is a child of divorce, "because they don't know whether I'm at my mum's house or my dad's."

It's an always-on world when you can communicate on the street and in the car. Especially as text messaging - email on the go, piped to your mobile - increases in popularity, you can see in the United States behaviour that is already ubiquitous in Europe, Australia and Asia. You can message silently in meetings, you can do it while in conversation with somebody else, and you can forward and share connections with others.

And you can do it much faster than you ever could before, by text or voice.

The former Philippine president, Joseph Estrada, accused of massive corruption, was driven out of power two years ago by smart mobs who swarmed to demonstrations, alerted by their mobile phones and gathering in no time. "It's like pizza delivery," Alex Magno, a political science professor at the University of the Philippines, said at the time. "You can get a rally in 30 minutes - delivered to you."

Mobile phones drove political change in that upheaval the way fax machines enabled Tiananmen Square, cassette recordings fired the Iranian revolution, photocopiers fuelled the Polish Solidarity uprising and short-wave radios aided the French Resistance.

The difference was the amazing speed with which people could swarm. It created not only a new kind of protest, but a new kind of protester. "It's a great way to get people who are in offices involved," Christina Bautisto, who works in Manila's financial district, said of her fellow professionals. "They don't have to spend all day protesting. They just get a message telling them when it's starting, and then they take the elevator down to the street. They can be seen, scream a little and then go back to work."

In Washington, mobile-mediated swarms are regular highlights of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund protests. "I don't want to give away all our tricks," says Eidinger, the political activist. "But wireless plays a huge role."

That includes everything from little "Family Pack" communicators from Radio Shack on up to sophisticated channel-skipping radios that are not easily monitored, all of which are used by "flying squads" to respond quickly to unanticipated opportunities. Mobile phones are in constant use by lawyers seeking court orders designed to complicate the lives of the authorities as the protest is still evolving.

Swarming is also the hallmark of the Critical Mass smart mobs on bicycles that clog Washington streets on the first Friday of most months, protesting the effects of the motor car.

"The people up front and the people in back are in constant communication, by mobile phone and walkie-talkies and hand signals," says Eidinger. "Everything is played by ear. On the fly, we can change the direction of the swarm - 230 people, a giant bike mass. That's why the police have very little control. They have no idea where the group is going."

The US military has been one of the earliest institutions to both fear and see the possibilities in swarming. John Arquilla co-authored Swarming and the Future of Conflict two years ago for the think-tank Rand Corporation and the Office of the Secretary of Defence. He sees swarming - "a deliberately structured, co-ordinated, strategic way to strike from all directions" - as spearheading a revolution in military affairs.

"The military has much to learn from Critical Mass," he writes in an email. "I used to go up to San Francisco regularly to see this leaderless swarm of bicyclists bring traffic to a complete halt for two hours. Once I asked a police sergeant, as he stood observing by the Ferry Building, what he was going to do about this. He shrugged his shoulders and asked back, 'What would you have me do?"'

"In future campaigns," Arquilla says, leaders might benefit by simply "drawing up a list of targets, fixed and mobile, and attaching point values to them. Then units in the field, in the air and at sea could simply pick whatever hadn't yet been taken. The commander would review periodic progress, adjust point values if needed from time to time, and basically stay the hell out of the way of the swarm."

Despite the sober implications, social swarms are easily the most common and intriguing for most people. "Cities are important places for young people who want to meet other people of the appropriate gender for purposes of mating," Rheingold says. "But also, they're developing their social networks. In Tokyo, they flock to fast-food joints. In Stockholm, it might be a hotel with a really nice bar."

The expectations for connectedness can be astonishingly high. Shirleece Roberts, 21, a student at New Jersey's Rutgers University who likes to use text messaging, says of her swarm, "Everything is based around the mobile phone. Where we're going to meet. Where we're going. Whether we're lost. Where we're at. How to get there. Everything."

Roberts is constantly pinging her posse. "When I get off work, going to the gym, I tell them - meet me there. If I'm going to the store or to the movies or out to eat, I'll tell them. If we're at parties or clubs, and get split up, we'll send a message that says 'meet me outside'. You talk to all your friends, all day, every day. Before you come to work, when you get off work, during work, before going to bed. See what we're doing. Going to sleep or going out."

The last thing Roberts does at the end of the day is send a text message that says, "Goodnight."

There can be a dark side to all this. Swarmers can have difficulty living in the present. They run the risk of never really connecting with the person physically in front of them. They're always wondering if there isn't somebody better they should be talking to at the next place. How's the party? Is it any good? This sucks. Should we move on? Is there any food? Are the girls prettier where you are?

Swarmers run the risk of skittering like water bugs on the surface of life. By being quickly and constantly connected, they can avoid deep contact in a time-consuming and meaningful way. "It gives you more opportunities, but it takes you out of the now," says Michael Reed, 34, an entertainment producer.

Bernardo Issel, a writer, says, "If I've shown up and not found the love of my life, not had a love-at-first-sight experience," at one location, "then I have the opportunity to find out if there are other events going on where that might happen.

"It distracts you from real life that you're engaged in," says Issel. "You're flitting from one place to another. You're more likely to pursue superficial engagements rather than deep pursuits.

"It contributes to this certain MTV approach to life where you engage in something for a few minutes and then there's a commercial."

The end result is that swarmers do indeed end up with "a more abrupt attention span", says Anna Boyarsky, 21, an intern at National Geographic. "But you have to have a grip on reality to feel it. If you know what is real, then you know that the mobile phone is not a real relationship. It's a connection, but not a person."

But how can you tell if a relationship is real? When you turn off the phone, says Boyarsky. "When somebody turns off their mobile phone for you, it's true love."

 

The Washington Post





The Swarming Organization

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