Politics 2.0 Conference: Waiting for Rheingold?

I am blogging live from the Politics 2.0 conference in London where Joss Hands just gave a talk on “Mobil(e)ising the Multitude: The Political Significance of Mobility in Contemporary Protest and Resistance Movements.” A long title for a long talk that could have been labeled as “A Critique of Rheingold’s Smart Mobs“. I was disappointed in not hearing a talk based on the first title. In any case, it was still interesting to listen to a review of Smart Mobs.

One of the interesting points made by Joss was in relation to reputation and reputations systems discussed by Rheingold. While the latter sees these as self-organized, Joss suggests they are not dissimilar to surveillance systems and profiling, a point that had not occurred to me before. The presenter put forward solidarity as an alternative means of reputation, which resonates with my study of social resistance and nonviolent movements. At the same time, however, reputation systems of the likes of eBay and Amazon are not exactly panopticons in the strict sense that Joss articulates. Individuals register in order to gain profit. In that sense, participation is self-motivated.

Joss also argues that Rheingold’s description of Smart Mobs as emergent behavior does not reflect reality. He describes the behavior observed in the Philippine SMS revolution, for example, as a series of cascades, i.e., not instantaneous. Joss notes that it was the official opposition party in the Philippines that started the text messaging, which then spread out in waves. Here Joss is a little off. Emergent behavior does not imply instantaneous action. Furthermore, Smart Mob behavior is no less emergent if government communication mobilizes the multitude. So while Joss argues that we have yet to see actual Smart Mob behavior, I’m not convinced we’re still waiting for Rheingold (see waiting for Godot).

In conclusion, there is a problem with academics drawing on popular science concepts such as emergence without understanding the science behind emergence. Joss used the word at least a dozen times to discredit some of Rheingold’s arguments but he never provided an appropriate definition let alone any definition.

Patrick Philippe Meier

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