- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 7, 2002

Howard Rheingold recalled where he was when reality hit. The founding editor of HotWired magazine was outside Shibuya, one of Tokyo's busiest train stations. Among the people bobbing and weaving about the Hachiko plaza outside, he noticed that hundreds of them were messaging each other through cell phones and hand-held computers. Most of them, he realized, were "texters" people walking about with constant Internet connections in their palms, their e-mail at the ready.
What, he wondered, are the implications for a society where people are wired everywhere they go, except in the shower?
Or a society where all one needs to do is point a hand-held computer at a street sign, announce where he wants to go and beam up an animated map to his Palm Pilot?
Where people are connected by electronic tethers to their machines, meaning the workplace is everywhere and one is always on the clock?
"People are divided into two camps over this," says Roya Ayman, a researcher at Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. "Some say all this is an information overload. You are constantly connected, informed. You work all the time and you can't get away from anything.
"The other perspective is that you have more control over your life because you have access to information at the tip of your fingers. Space and time no longer control us. For the first time in history, you can be in two places at once. You can talk to your children about their homework problems while still being at the office."
Some say text-based cell phones, which are huge in Japan and Europe but just coming into style in America, cause people to split their attention between their electronic devices and their physical surroundings.
Mr. Rheingold calls this "continuous partial attention." He told of a congregation he visited in the Philippines where worshippers appeared to be gazing into their hands and praying the Rosary. Looking closer, he saw small, two-way text pagers, known as "blackberries," into which congregants quietly were typing messages.
Like many Asian nations, the Philippines depends heavily on cell phones. The technology, incidentally, contributed to the overthrow of President Joseph Estrada on Jan. 20, 2001. Mr. Rheingold traced this to "smart mobs" people with cell phones who can converge onto an area quickly to conduct demonstrations, block intersections or simply make their views known peaceably.
When text messages told people to wear black and converge on a plaza known as the Epifanio de los Santas Avenue, about 1 million obligingly did so in shifts, he writes in his new book, "Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution."
Mr. Estrada's government fell after four days of such electronic herding.
The Special Forces work in Afghanistan was a type of smart mob, Mr. Rheingold said. So were the terrorists on the morning of September 11 who kept in touch via cell phones before taking over their doomed jetliners.
The idea of drawing information from mobile mobs armed with Internet video capacity, he says, boggles the mind.
"An event is going to happen somewhere," he says, "and 300 people will send video to the Internet in 20 minutes. The major media aren't going away, but the minor media are exploding."
The Japanese are developing technology that can send videos to Web sites almost instantly. Thus, someone at the site of a news event can post photos and text on the Web from a mobile phone. Some of these personal Web pages are called "blogs," Internet sites based on author commentary with continuous updating.
Wired News estimated that some 500,000 blogs existed as of February.
"Putting cameras and high-speed Net connections into telephones moves 'blogging' to the streets," Mr. Rheingold says. Coming up: "a worldwide culture," he says, of self-made journalist/bloggers creating information outside government and media sources, and perhaps new gurus.
"Communication technology always leads to new religion," he says. "The technology that printed the Gutenberg Bible changed religion with the idea that people had the right to read the Bible for themselves. The Protestant Reformation was the first virtual community. People not related to each other and who spoke different languages were willing to die for ideas they saw in print."
Daniel Levi, a psychology professor at the California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, says such high-speed communication comes with hazards.
"The ability to spread misinformation very quickly is a potential political problem," he says. "It's the ability of the unregulated media I am not worried about CBS creating a blatant lie getting me to do something."
But Pandora's box is already open, especially for the young, who are the world's biggest users of cell phones.
In Scandinavia, youths receive cell phones as confirmation presents. In Saudi Arabia, girls and boys not allowed to meet secretly communicate via cell phone. In Japan, Mr. Levi says, some teenage girls use their cell phones to engage in after-school prostitution as a means of making extra money.
"Teens can communicate with their peers silently now," he says. "They can socialize outside the family, even at home."
The information overload is vast enough for colleges to consider classes on "informational literacy," says Dennis Murray, president of Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
"We have to teach young people how to vet info," he says, "making them more critical thinkers about the information they get over the Internet. We teach them to not believe everything just because it has an authoritative voice.
"There are great databases and massive amounts of worldwide information, but there's also junk out there. People may use the Internet to try to rewrite history."
Joseph Tecce, a psychology professor at Boston University, notices that students immerse themselves in technology as a diversion.
"The lonely kids use their cell phones to reduce their loneliness by walking around campus talking on their phones," he says. "Virtual reality takes the place of real reality."
Virtual reality the perception of information not immediately apparent in the physical world is faddish now, he says. But palm-held computers and cell phones may not transform society as much as people think.
"People have ways of modulating and balancing how much they escape from the real world," he says, "and how much they engage in it."

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