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Howard's Web

From the January 19, 2004 issue: The Dean camp's Internet impresario.

Jan 19, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 18 • By DAVID SKINNER
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IF HOWARD DEAN'S VAUNTED Internet campaign has a guru, it's arguably Howard Rheingold, author of "The Virtual Community," "Smart Mobs," and other works of techno-sociology. Rheingold, once called the "first citizen of the Internet," established himself during the early '90s as the leading proponent of the idea that the Internet would have profound social consequences. Since September, he's been advising the Dean campaign on its online strategy as part of the campaign's Net Advisory Net, a group including Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig, "Cluetrain Manifesto" coauthor Doc Searls, and assorted celebrities of the Bay Area's technophile, anti-Microsoft, intellectual milieu.

Rheingold says he communicates by email with the Dean campaign about once a week--"it's just getting started"--but there is clearly no lack of affection between the Deanies and the wired crowd. Rheingold's relationship with the campaign began when Dean campaign manager "Joe Trippi had mentioned on my weblog that he had read my book ["Smart Mobs"] and found it influential." Sending a compliment the other way, one NAN adviser has written that the Dean campaign "is the first presidential campaign that really gets the Internet and will do right by it."

For the most part Rheingold's contribution to the NAN conversations concerns the Internet's "decentralized, self-organizing power," its enabling of likeminded people who don't know each other to get together, to form what he called in his 2002 book of the same title "smart mobs." Meetup.com, the web service that Dean supporters have latched onto to set up meetings and fundraising parties, is "a perfect example of a smart mob," he says.

Rheingold made rather bold claims in that book about the democratizing potential of wireless technology--cell phones and especially text messagers. "The practice of exchanging short text messages via telephone," he wrote, "has led to the eruption of subcultures in Europe and Asia. At least one government has fallen, in part because of the way people use text messaging. Adolescent mating rituals, political activism, and corporate management styles have mutated in unexpected ways."

The fallen government was that of Philippine president Joseph Estrada, who in 2000 was about to be impeached because of a corruption scandal when he got off almost scot-free in court. This inspired massive demonstrations, organized by shorthand text messages on cell phones, giving the location for the demos and the added suggestion to "wear blck" [sic]. The story exemplifies a favorite Rheingold theme--that technology is returning power to the people. He notices this in contexts large and small, including among teenagers who with their own phones no longer need permission to call their boyfriends and girlfriends.

Technology's democratizing effect is what we discuss when I reach Rheingold by phone, once we get past the fact that I work for THE WEEKLY STANDARD. "I am starting with the fact that you identify yourself as a conservative magazine and I simply want to identify the fact that my political or your readers' political bias shouldn't matter if you stipulate that we all agree that democracy is a good thing."

Thus stipulating that I'm not wearing a brown shirt, we get underway. Or rather he gets underway. I count six sentences in a row starting with the word "and," as Rheingold launches into a McLuhanesque riff about printing presses and political revolution from the 18th century all the way to the Nixon-Kennedy debates in 1960, making television "the most important player in democratic politics."

What's most likable about Rheingold's spiel is his acknowledgment that "democratizing doesn't mean that all the effects are going to be pleasant. . . . You can make an argument that al Qaeda used these technologies--the Internet and mobile telephones and [their] enabling of decentralized self-organization--to commit terrorist acts."

And yet, despite the qualifications, the word democracy seems to hold an almost talismanic power for Rheingold (and many others on the left) not entirely in keeping with America's constitutional traditions. Rheingold's signature phrase--smart mobs--would strike most previous generations as absurd if not sinister. A mob, in the parlance of practically any political philosophy, is a seething and irrational, potentially violent, group of people. That it would be "smart"--in Rheingold's sense, meaning instantly organized by the Internet and wireless technology--would only make it more dangerous.