A washingtonpost.com article from: millerk at nytimes.com
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Wed Jul 31 21:29:51 UTC 2002
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Swarming, fleshmet and drunk-dialing all in one article.
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By Joel Garreau
At the University of St. Andrews, where he studies art history, the royal hottie Prince William can't even go out for drinks with friends without being tracked electronically by a pack of wired women.
"A quite sophisticated text messaging network has sprung up," an "insider" told the Scottish Daily Record. "If William is spotted anywhere in the town then messages are sent out" on his admirers' cell phones. "It starts off quite small. The first messages are then forwarded to more girls and so on. It just has a snowball effect. Informing 100 girls of his movements takes just seconds." At one bar, the prince had to be moved to a safe location when more than 100 "lusty ladies," so alerted, suddenly mobbed the place like cats responding to the sound of a can opener.
Chalk up another life changed by "swarming," a behavior that is transforming social, work, military and even political lives worldwide, especially among the young. It is the unintended consequence of people, cell phones in hand, learning that they can coordinate instantly and leaderlessly.
"It's the search for peak experience, something that's really going to be special," says Adam Eidinger, a District political organizer. "It happened to me just last week. There was a concert at Fort Reno -- Fugazi." His cell rang. "There's this guy, Bernardo, who's one of the biggest swarmer cell-phone people I know." Came the restless call: " 'Where are you? There are all these people here!' And he wasn't just calling us. He called 25 people. Pretty soon everybody he knew was sitting on the grass, and none of them knew they were going to be there that morning."
This is the precise opposite of a 1962-style "American Graffiti" world. Then you had to go to a place -- the strip, the drive-in -- to find out what was going on. Now, you find out what's going on by cell phone, and go to the place where it's happening.
Swarming is a classic example of how once-isolated individuals are discovering a new way to organize order out of chaos, without guidance. It reverses the idea that geography, in an Internet age, has become irrelevant -- the whole point is to bring people together in one location for face-to-face contact. Swarming is also leading to such wondrous social developments as "time-softening," "cell dancing," "life skittering," "posse pinging," "drunk dialing," and "smart mobs."
Movement Made to Order
Howard Rheingold is an apostle of swarming.
A colorful character who tastefully paints his black dress shoes with moons, stars, planets and flames, Rheingold has for a generation examined the unintended and imaginative uses of new technology by society.
He helped pioneer virtual communities -- a phrase he invented -- before most people had even heard of e-mail or seen a cell phone. This was in such a dim and murky past -- 1988 -- that human relationships created simply by typing into the ether were then seen by pundits as preposterous. This was before "fleshmet" entered the lexicon of the early adopters. As in: "Oh yeah, we know each other real well -- although I don't think we've ever fleshmet."
As the Internet and mobile communications merge, as cell phones increasingly become something that a teenager gets with her driver's license, and as they shrink from a tool you carry to a fashion item that you wear, Rheingold sees a profound shift in society. "They amplify human talents for cooperation," he says.
This is by no means all fun and games. The gear was used by "some of its earliest adopters to support democracy and by others to coordinate terrorist attacks," says Rheingold, whose forthcoming book is called "Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution."
Smart mobs are a serious realignment of human affairs, in which leaders may determine an overall goal, but the actual execution is created on the fly by participants at the lowest possible level who are constantly innovating, Rheingold notes. They respond to changing situations without requesting or needing permission. In some cases, even the goal is determined collaboratively and non-hierarchically. It is the warp-speed embodiment of Gandhi's maxim, "There go my people, I must run to catch up with them for I am their leader."
The key to the power of mobiles -- including hybrids like two-way pagers, Blackberry e-mailers, personal digital assistants merged with phones, wireless laptops, and phones merged with two-way radios -- is that they liberate people from their desktop telephones and computers, moving the action out to that much larger portion of life that encompasses wherever and whenever humans roam. "My friends call me on my cell even when I'm at home," says one teenager who is a child of divorce, "because they don't know whether I'm at my mom's house or my dad's."
It's an always-on world when you can communicate on the street and in the car. Especially as text-messaging -- e-mail on the go piped to your mobile -- increases in popularity, you can see in the States behavior that is already ubiquitous in Europe and Asia. You can message silently in meetings, you can do it while in conversation with somebody else, and you can forward and share connections with others.
And you can do it much faster than you ever could before, by text or voice.
Former Philippine president Joseph Estrada, accused of massive corruption, was driven out of power two years ago by smart mobs who swarmed to demonstrations, alerted by their cell phones, gathering in no time. "It's like pizza delivery," Alex Magno, a political science professor at the University of the Philippines, told The Post at the time. "You can get a rally in 30 minutes -- delivered to you."
Cell phones drove political change in that upheaval the way fax machines enabled Tiananmen Square, cassette recordings fired the Iranian revolution, photocopiers fueled the Polish Solidarity uprising and short-wave radios aided the French Resistance.
The difference was the amazing speed with which people could swarm. It created not only a new kind of protest, but a new kind of protester. "It's a great way to get people who are in offices involved," Christina Bautisto, who works in Manila's financial district, said of her fellow professionals. "They don't have to spend all day protesting. They just get a message telling them when it's starting, and then they take the elevator down to the street. They can be seen, scream a little and then go back to work."
In Washington, mobile-mediated swarms are regular highlights of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund protests. "I don't want to give away all our tricks," says Eidinger, the political activist. "But wireless plays a huge role."
That includes everything from little "Family Pack" communicators from Radio Shack on up to sophisticated channel-skipping radios that are not easily monitored, all of which are used by "flying squads" to respond quickly to unanticipated opportunities. Cell phones are in constant use by lawyers seeking court orders designed to complicate the lives of the authorities as the protest is still evolving.
Swarming is also the hallmark of the Critical Mass smart mobs on bicycles that clog Washington streets the first Friday of most months, protesting the effects of the automobile.
"The people up front and the people in back are in constant communication, by cell phone and walkie-talkies and hand signals," says Eidinger. "Everything is played by ear. On the fly, we can change the direction of the swarm -- 230 people, a giant bike mass. That's why the police have very little control. They have no idea where the group is going."
The U.S. military has been one of the earliest institutions to both fear and see the possibilities in swarming. John Arquilla co-authored "Swarming and the Future of Conflict" two years ago for the think tank Rand Corp. and the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He sees swarming -- "a deliberately structured, coordinated, strategic way to strike from all directions" -- as spearheading a revolution in military affairs.
"The military has much to learn from Critical Mass," he writes in an e-mail. "I used to go up to San Francisco regularly to see this leaderless swarm of bicyclists bring traffic to a complete halt for two hours. Once I asked a police sergeant, as he stood observing by the Ferry Building, what he was going to do about this. He shrugged his shoulders and asked back, 'What would you have me do?' "
"In future campaigns," Arquilla says, leaders might benefit by simply "drawing up a list of targets, fixed and mobile, and attaching point values to them. Then units in the field, in the air and at sea could simply pick whatever hadn't yet been taken. The commander would review periodic progress, adjust point values if needed from time to time, and basically stay the hell out of the way of the swarm."
Despite the sober implications, social swarms are easily the most common and intriguing for most people. "Cities are important places for young people who want to meet other people of the appropriate gender for purposes of mating," Rheingold says. "But also, they're developing their social networks. In Tokyo, they flock to fast-food joints. In Stockholm, it might be a hotel with a really nice bar."
Social swarming involves sharing your life with others in real time. It means pulsing to the rhythm of life with one's posse. It means a nonstop emotional connection to one's swarm.
Swarming to Gazuza
It's Saturday night and -- between the art show openings of twilight and the after-hours clubs near dawn -- the tribe that swarms touches down at Gazuza.
Single, in their twenties and thirties, and wired, the members of this Washington swarm are briefly landing at this stylish Dupont Circle club as they hear that at this instant, the action is here.
Bill Luza, 35, an architectural designer dressed all in white, is old enough to regale the crowd with tales of days so ancient that his first cell phone was the size of a French bread loaf. It came with its own shoulder bag. Yet he recalls how vindicated he felt when his fuel pump gave out between Alexandria and Woodbridge and he became one of the first people in the region to use this new gadget to rescue himself.
Anna Boyarsky and Corinne Fralick, both 21, who are interning at the National Geographic and the Center for Policy Research on Women and Families, respectively, casually mention that there are no land lines into their group house any more. Why bother? To be young is to be cognitively welded to a mobile, right?
"You always want it near you," somebody says. "You take the phone out of your purse and leave your purse behind. You take your phone even when you don't take your purse or your keys. It's like a little person."
Luza raises his head from a call. "That one was from Argentina," he casually remarks.
The swarmers laugh at themselves and the role swarming plays in their lives. "Cell dancing" comes up. This is the choreographed behavior in which two people who are vaguely in the same area but can't find each other get on the phone.
"It's a locator service," says Boyarsky. "My younger brother was in town. We were going to meet up for lunch. 'I'm at M and something,' he said." She had him start walking down the street, calling out landmarks. Suddenly, she crowed, " 'I see you, I'm at the other corner.' "
"Drunk dialing" brings blushes of recognition. Oh, yes. "Saying things that you shouldn't be saying because the cell phone's in your pocket and you're drunk," someone acknowledges, knowingly. "If you've got the phone in your hand, it's such a temptation."
"Stupid things," says Angie Hacker, an intern with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. "My best friend at home, she broke up with this guy she went out with for two years. She calls him and like, 'I know you're not over me. I know you feel that way. You're just going out with that other girl because she's around.' And then she hung up."
"Ohhhhhh. I have a friend," says Fralick. "Every weekend, 1 o'clock in the morning, she calls me. She's totally trashed, and in California -- three-hour time difference -- to tell me how much she loves me, how much fun she's having, how much fun I'm having. Talking about everything. 'The boy I kissed earlier.' No point to the conversation. The cell phone companies must love it. People are just so drunk it's like, oh, I'll just call everybody I know."
But more seriously, everyone acknowledges that being constantly in touch with the rest of the swarm is changing their sense of time, place, obligations and presence -- indeed, their lives.
At Gazuza, two women say they found their current apartment and roommates through the swarm. At a Dave Matthews Band concert at MCI Center recently, some fans shared the music with distant friends by holding up their cell phones, the way an earlier generation might have raised glowing cigarette lighters.
The very fabric of their time has softened. Remember arranging to meet at a specific time, like 8 p.m., at a specific location, like Connecticut and K? Forget it. The new hallmark of squishy lives involves vaguely agreeing to meet after work, and then working out the details on the fly. A time-softened meeting starts with a call that says, "I'm 15 minutes away." It's no longer unforgivable to be late, as long as you're in contact.
"If you didn't have the cell phone, you'd make more of an effort to be on time," says Kaine Kornegay, 21, an intern in the Senate. "It's more socially acceptable to be late," he says, "because you've given notice that you would be."
"With that, the problem is resolved because the information was transmitted, although not his physical body," chimes in Ky Nguyen, 30, a Laurel freelance writer.
"There's a level of service agreement," he says. You expect people with cell phones to be available all the time. If they don't call back quickly, that's interpreted as a snub, and it causes anger. It would not be the same calling a land line because you might be out, so taking a day to get back could seem perfectly reasonable.
"You get mad at each other when those expectations vary from actuality," says Nguyen. "Sometimes it's because of a failure to perform on the part of a person. But at others, it's just a failure to communicate the level of expectation that one person is expected to provide versus what another person expects to receive."
The expectations for connectedness can be astonishingly high. In an earlier conversation, Shirleece Roberts, 21, a senior at Rutgers who likes to use text messaging, had said of her swarm, "Everything is based around the cell phone. Where we're going to meet. Where we're going. Whether we're lost. Where we're at. How to get there. Everything."
Roberts is constantly pinging her posse. "When I get off work, going to the gym, I tell them -- meet me there. If I'm going to the store or to the movies or out to eat, I'll tell them. If we're at parties or clubs, and get split up, we'll send a message that says 'Meet me outside.' You talk to all your friends, all day, every day. Before you come to work, when you get off work, during work, before going to bed. See what we're doing. Going to sleep or going out."
The last thing Roberts does at the end of the day is send a text message that says, "Good night."
There can be a dark side to all this. Swarmers can have difficulty living in the present. They run the risk of never really connecting with the person physically in front of them. They're always wondering if there isn't somebody better they should be talking to at the next place. How's the party? Is it any good? This sucks. Should we move on? Is there any food? Are the girls prettier where you are?
In an e-mail, Theresa Ward of McLean admits that she now waits until the last minute to make social commitments, responding to the best offer. "One example, embarrassing but true -- I was supposed to go to my friend's graduation party and when I found out about a dollar draft special, at the last minute I ditched my plans and met other people," she writes. Call it just-in-time partying.
Swarmers run the risk of skittering like water bugs on the surface of life. By being quickly and constantly connected, they can avoid deep contact in a time-consuming and meaningful way. "It gives you more opportunities, but it takes you out of the now," says Michael Reed, 34, an entertainment producer.
"If I've shown up and not found the love of my life, not had a love-at-first-sight experience," at one location, "then I have the opportunity to find out if there are other events going on where that might happen," says Bernardo Issel, a writer.
"It distracts you from real life that you're engaged in," says Issel. "You're flitting from one place to another. You're more likely to pursue superficial engagements rather than deep pursuits.
"It contributes to this certain MTV approach to life where you engage in something for a few minutes and then there's a commercial."
The end result is that swarmers do indeed end up with "a more abrupt attention span," says Boyarsky. "But you have to have a grip on reality to feel it. Unless you know what is real -- what is a real friendship and relationship -- neither can have an effect on you. If you know what is real, then you know that the cell phone is not a real relationship. It's a connection, but not a person. It allows you to connect to other people, but it's not them, and not you.
"It's a sign of commitment, when you turn off the phone," Boyarsky says. "When somebody turns off their cell phone for you, it's true love."
Staff researcher Mary Lou White contributed to this report.
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