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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.

Even discounting for hype, Dean's is clearly the most with-it campaign when it comes to the world of meetups and flash mobs, and as a result it gives the impression of being more than just a campaign, possibly a seminal cultural moment. Rheingold, however, says that's not the attraction of the Dean campaign for him. True, he "forecasted something Dean's people picked up on and have taken advantage of." But he likes Dean because of Dean's willingness to bring the fight to Bush, who Rheingold believes is, among other crimes, trampling the Constitution.

"This administration," he says, with perhaps more passion than coherence, is "changing everything from the Fourth Amendment, search and seizure, the First Amendment, about the right to publish, to the way it is gerrymandering election districts, and [raising] questions about voting machines."

How quickly we descend from the aerie of technology and the future of democracy to the hard pavement of partisan contempt. Like many on the left, Rheingold is credulous about the most extreme anti-Bush accusations and markedly less excited about ordinary political issues. He's with Dean because of Dean's "objection to the fundamental constitutional rules being changed by the present administration. And frankly, his policies could be the same as George Bush . . . on everything else" and Rheingold would still support Dean.

When I ask Rheingold where he stood on going to war against Iraq, he says he approves of "corrective international action against nations who seek to possess weapons of mass destruction." He adds that it's too bad we alienated so many countries before going into Iraq because "we still have to deal with Iran and Korea." It's funny how often the political rhetoric of people who can be strikingly original thinkers in their own disciplines turns out to be clichéd and second-hand.

Dean's campaign may be by far the "coolest" of the Democratic operations in its enthusiasm for technology and for having supporters help the campaign by doing their own thing. Alas, it is probably not these qualities but group-think contempt for Bush that explains why the Dean campaign has all the energy on the left right now and why tech royalty like Howard Rheingold are along for the ride. It is, indeed, a smart mob.

David Skinner is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard.