Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Salvation thru SMS?

I can't help but feel that Howard Rheingold's analysis of "The Next Social Revolution" is limited in historical perspective, and caught up in the sort of "gee whiz" attitude that has been routinely criticized as naive and simplistic. What Rheingold asserts is that new technology is creating powerful new networks of social interaction that promise to change everything from "adolescent mating rituals," to "political activism, and corporate management styles" (xi). Text message technology, it would seem, is a totalizing revision of contemporary culture.

In this attitude and analysis, there seems to be a palpable ghost of the "Californian Ideology," a phrase coined by two academics, Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron, when the argued against the technological utopianism coming out of California in the early Digital Age. When Rheingold suggests "social revolution" and perceived social equalizing through cell phone technology, he is in effect forwarding the logic of the Californian Ideology is presenting new media technology as equalizing. Rheingold is also inexact, vague, and overtly optimistic about the future. Lines like "Mobile technology, when it really arrives, will not just be a way to do old things while moving. It will be a way to do new things that couldn't be done before" (xiv) express a clear example of just this sort of attitude. Creating a tension between "new things that couldn't be done before" and "old things," Rheingold suggests that the things technology will deliver to society have not even been missed yet. He also uses a sort of messianic treatment of technology, suggesting that "when it really arrives" "new things" will replace the rudimentary execution of "old things while moving." This seems to be an odd fetishizing of the future.

News Flash! - Historicizing the Mob Mentality

As an extension of this attitude, Rheingold also places the cell phone social revolution and the flash mob as a "new" events, created by new technology, and founded on the ability to connect virtually online and through SMS messaging. They are presented as seemingly without historical precedent or explanation, suggesting an origin in technology itself.

This seems misguided. Flash Mobs as an entity must at least have roots in the pre-Lenten carnival, the post-match soccer riot, the spontaneous political celebration/protest, and the day-after-Thanksgiving sale rush, to name but a few contemporary examples. What would be different about these events in contrast to Flash Mobs would be their inherent "occasional" status, predicated on calendrical value, reactions to events or mediated calls to arms. But are these things really that different than text message based spontaneity? Are Flash Mobs really so discontinuous with previous social practice and history as Rheingold suggests?

Let's historicize the flash mob.

No comments: