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Mutating mobiles. [Mobile telephones and social change]

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Background Briefing


Sunday 25 April 2004

Mutating mobiles


Dial Tones/Mobile phone ring

Tom Morton: Yes, hello? Yes, it’s Tom here. Yes I’m at the station, the train’s late. Oh, Background Briefing! Sorry about that, listeners. Tom Morton here, calling in on the mobile. Just waiting for my train.

Now of course, if I lived in Melbourne, I could get the times of the next four trains sent by a text message to my mobile phone. And as it happens, mobiles are our subject today on Background Briefing.

If you think about it, in the space of a decade, the mobile phone has transformed our everyday lives. Those little digital companions are changing the way we work, the way we play and socialise, and they’re mutating all the time. You can listen to music on your mobile, play games, read the news, vote at a shareholders’ meeting, even cruise a virtual pick-up joint.

And I’m on call waiting right now for a man who says that mobiles have the power to create the next social revolution.

Dial tones

Howard Rheingold: This is Howard.

Tom Morton: Oh, good-day Howard, it’s Tom Morton here from Background Briefing at Radio National in Sydney.

Howard Rheingold: Hi.

Tom Morton: How are you going?

Howard Rheingold: I’m doing well, Ahri’s here, she’s got her mike going, she’s got her tape recorder on, we’re ready to go.

Tom Morton: Howard Rheingold’s talking to us from his home outside San Francisco, where he’s written a number of influential books about new technology and communication.

Ten years ago, Rheingold published The Virtual Community, a book which predicted many of the ways the Internet would change our lives, before most of us had even heard of it. And Rheingold things the implications of what we can do with mobiles are no less far-reaching. He says that mobiles and text messaging are ‘co-operation amplifiers’: they enable people to come together as what he calls ‘smart mobs’, and already smart mobs using mobiles have helped to bring down governments.

Howard Rheingold: Well smart mob is a large term for any group of people, small or large, who use the Internet and mobile communications, or both together, to organise collective action. When you’re sending a text message out, it takes a few seconds to thumb a message in to your handset, but once someone receives it, they can then send it out to everyone in their address book. So there’s a kind of an explosive growth of the messaging. It’s also something in which you don’t have to have a centralised organisation broadcasting. People can send messages to people in their social networks, to the people they know, and I think that’s very important when you take that democratic, many-to-many communications potential, the ability to self organise political demonstrations, using text messaging, using SMS, as the Philippine citizens have when they demonstrated against the Estrada regime in 2000, as the Korean activists did when they tipped the election in favour of President Roh in 2002. So I think that adds up to something that we’ve seen in Manila and Seoul and Madrid, as being a potent force for collective action.

Tom Morton: If the ‘90s were the decade of the Internet, the noughties could well be the decade of the mobile.

Mobile ringtones, Pachinko machines and Tokyo street sounds

Tom Morton: In the northern spring of the year 2000, Howard Rheingold was waiting to cross the street at a busy intersection in Tokyo, and idly watching some Japanese teenagers playing with their mobile phones. Suddenly, he realised that the future was tugging at his sleeve. He had a sudden flash of insight, what he calls his Shibuya epiphany.

Howard Rheingold: Well Shibuya Crossing is a major intersection and there’s a railroad there. In fact it’s a place where people have gathered to meet each other for a long, long time; before modern Tokyo was rebuilt from the ashes of World War II, there used to be a famous dog who waited for her master at that station for decades, and one day her master died, didn’t come back, and the dog stayed there, for years, and people fed it. There’s now a statue of that dog, named Hachiko at Shibuya Crossing. Now of course today, Shibuya Crossing is a spectacular place where 1500 people cross the street in all directions every time the light changes; you have these gigantic building-sized television sets, some of which show images from the people crossing the streets, some of which show advertisements. It’s quite a sensory overload there. But what struck me besides the spectacular movement of this place, was that about every sixth person seemed to be looking at their telephone. When I saw that, I thought something unusual is happening here, and when I saw teenagers doing the same thing in Helsinki on the other side of the world in Finland a few weeks later, that really piqued my interest, and got me to start looking into this.

Tom Morton: Howard Rheingold, author of ‘Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution’. Howard Rheingold’s epiphany at Shibuya Crossing began with a simple observation. Instead of talking into their mobile phones, the Japanese teenagers he’d spotted were looking at them, and using them to send SMS or text messages.

In 2000, texting was relatively unknown in the United States, where Howard Rheingold comes from. But elsewhere it was taking off, and everywhere, it was teenagers, or what he calls the Fun Tribes, who were taking it to the streets.

Howard Rheingold: In fact what’s interesting about it is that in Scandinavia, and Asia, where SMS, where text messaging first took off, it was really the 15-year-olds who discovered it, and appropriated it for their own social purposes. It spread through society from them. The media that a 15-year-old carries today, whether they’re in Sao Paulo, or they’re in Seoul, or they’re in Wellington, anywhere in the world, they are empowering media for those teenagers. They can summon their friends, they can let their social network know what’s happening with them. Increasingly they can show pictures of what they are seeing, they can share the experiences of their daily life.

Timo Kopomaa: Young people, they are kind of swarming tribes who move in a city and make contacts to their friends and mates and try to meet them in a city. ‘Where are you?’ ‘I’m here’, and like that. There we see what’s the modern nomad way of life.

Tom Morton: Timo Kopomaa. He’s a Finnish social scientist based in Helsinki, who’s written a book about mobiles called ‘The City in your Pocket’. Like Howard Rheingold, Timo Kopomaa says that young people are the vanguard of the new mobile culture. He describes them ‘swarming through the city, modern nomads with the mobile as their compass and beacon’. And in the process, young people are bringing about a renewal of urban culture, making the modern city into their own living room.

Timo Kopomaa: Mobile phones, they made a new way to use the public space. It has intensified. Something which had been inside before, in home, in workplace, like that, it was possible now to communicate outside of these places.

Tom Morton: Can you give me some examples of how that’s happened in Finland?

Timo Kopomaa: If we look at how people use cafes and terraces and like that, there’s always someone making calls, or sending text messages. It’s kind of a living room, so it’s a place where you meet people, and where you see people, perhaps it’s more kind of seeing and hoping to see someone, and when we are having a mobile phone and a mobile phone conversation in public, we show that we are efficient, we’re working, we have friends, we are popular.

Woman: I have three phones.

Paul Bolger: Three phones?

Woman: Yes.

Paul Bolger: Why do you have three?

Woman: Well um my dad gave me one, and um it was a crap one so I decided I’d get a better one, and then I got a coloured one.

Paul Bolger: Do you use it to meet people?

Woman: Um yes of course, always, all over the street, it’s always numbers and calling them.

Tom Morton: What did you do before you had a mobile?

Woman: I was uncontactable, my social life was really ruined.

Tom Morton: Can you believe that people didn’t ever have mobiles at all?

Woman: Oh it’s insane, I don’t know how grandparents lived with out them.

Howard Rheingold: They teach each other how to use the complexities of the devices, in ways that their parents don’t understand. Ten years from now those 15-year-olds are going to be 25, they going to be citizens, they’ll be entering the workforce, and the devices that they carry are going to be maybe thousands of times more powerful than the ones that they carry today. What’s that going to mean?

Tom Morton: What is it going to mean? What’s the social revolution that you talk about in the sub-title of your book? I mean it’s not just people sending each other messages about where they’re going to meet in the shopping mall, it’s about something much larger, isn’t it?

Howard Rheingold: Well you know, we’re seeing the young people in Korea saw that their favourite website told them that their favourite candidate was losing in the exit polls at the election, so they send SMS messages to their friends, and emails, and organised a spontaneous get out the vote campaign, and tipped the election in their favour. That’s pretty serious business.

These are really just people flexing their abilities to self-organise collective action, whether it’s serious political action or frivolous entertainment, they’re practising. Ten or 15 years from now what skills will they have to organise political action? Now it’s really again, nothing new that people will appropriate communication technologies for social purposes, even if they weren’t designed that way. The use of the mobile phone to send text messages was never planned by the operators or the handset manufacturers to be a huge business, it was just something that was technically possible. In fact in the Philippines, where it’s huge now, they started by giving it away as a way to sell telephones, but people took it up because it offers them a way to communicate socially that they didn’t have before.

The telephone was originally not seen to be a social communication medium, it was thought to be a broadcast medium. The original telephone company thought that they were going to have people playing violins on concert stages, and people would pick up their telephone receivers and listen to it.

Mobil e ringtone/ Beethoven's 5th Symphony.

Soap on mobiles as TV goes tiny. The launch of TV’s first-ever soap for the tiny mobile phone screen might not suit everyone’s taste, but it is living proof that the TV and digital worlds are merging.

The first soap drama specifically made for mobile phones, called ‘Hotel Franklin’, has just been launched by media giant News Corporation. The episodes last just one minute, because this seems to be the natural length for phone viewers, NewsCorp spokeswoman Lucy Hood said.

Hit TV game shows, such as 'Who Wants to be a Millionaire' are also transferring to telephones, and a deal to licence a Millionaire phone game developed by Active Media, and an SMS mobile text version, was unveiled this week.

Tom Morton: Well it’s a long way from violins playing down the telephone to the mobile soap.

Already in Japan, whole novels have been written for that little flickering screen. There’s a website which will send SMS Poetry to your mobiles, and at Griffith University in Queensland, students are translating TS Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’ into SMS.

Soon you’ll be able to watch TV on your mobile, or view pornography, and there’s even a ringtone you can download which turns your mobile into a virtual vibrator.


Tom Morton: But the real power of the next generation of mobiles will lie in their ability to open up a world of information around us, so-called location-based services. Already, mobile phones with GPS chips can tell you where you are and show you a map if you’re lost. And that’s just the beginning.

Howard Rheingold: If your device knows where you are and you have a connection to the Internet, then you could have access to databases that store information about that spot. So you might find out what the crime statistics are or when the next bus is going to come along. You could point your device down the street and ask is there a good Chinese restaurant in this direction? And what does the newspaper critic say about it? And have any of my friends eaten there? Or what do people say about the service in the last hour? I just got to town, I don’t know how to get to my destination, and I’m not quite sure where I am; can you show me a map of how to get there? All of those things are possible with technologies that are available today.

Mobile ringtones, Pachinko machines and Tokyo street sounds

Tom Morton: What Howard Rheingold sensed for the first time at Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo was that the mobile phone is mutating, and fast. It’s no longer just a device for talking to people, or calling to say you’re on the train.

Rheingold calls the mobile a remote control for modern life. It’s a kind of navigational device, to find out way through an information labyrinth.

Howard Rheingold: What we’re seeing now, are these are not just telephones, although that’s why we carry them, to have voice conversations. Increasingly they’re miniature internet terminals, and they’re getting more and more computational ability. At the same time, dropping the price of chips, and the fact that they can make them so tiny, means that there’s going to be little specs of information embedded in all manufactured objects, and in places all around us. It’s starting with these radio frequency ID tags that they’re putting on consumer packaged goods. We’re moving through a computer pervaded world, and it may be that the devices we carry are not just communication devices, but like remote controls to somehow navigate through or control, or be controlled by this world of pervasive computer.

Tom Morton: The world of pervasive computing is already around us. If you live in London and you need a taxi, you can call an automated service called Zingo. Zingo can pinpoint the location of your mobile phone and send a message to the nearest cabbie to pick you up.

Elsewhere in Britain, mobiles are being used to help people with mental illnesses.

Here’s James Harkin, the author of ‘Mobilisation’, a study of mobiles for the Demos think-tank.

James Harkin: In Northern England at the moment, there’s a trial in which people in community care installations, people with mental health problems, are given mobile devices and social workers can use those devices to track their movement throughout the day, which not only helps to keep those people safe but also might help to keep the community safe if those people end up becoming a danger, not only to themselves but to other people.

Another example of location-based technology might be in business. Already for example in Hong Kong, you have some companies which are using mobile tracking technology to keep an eye on their workers as they move around Hong Kong, and that ability to track field workers has led to productivity improvements of between 7% and 10%.

Howard Rheingold: We have very little idea of what we’re heading into. One of the few things we do know is that the Orwellian ‘1984’ vision of surveillance was really inadequate to describe the technical capabilities today. It’s not just Big Brother, it’s not just the State who can track our movements minute by minute, but people want to sell us things, our ex-spouse, that person we cut off in traffic on the freeway, a woman in Japan suspected her husband of cheating, so she put her GPS phone under the seat of his car, and turned it on, and showed up at his mistress' house with her lawyer. We’re heading into a world where everyone can surveil everyone else. Prior notions of privacy are already being severely challenged.

We’re really just at the beginning of a new era, in which we have very little understanding of what the consequences of being surrounded by all these devices are. I don’t think that all of them are necessarily going to be beneficial or pleasant, or even controllable.

Spanish TV reporting terrorist bombings

Tom Morton: There’s perhaps no starker illustration of the power of mobile communications for good and ill than the recent terrorist bombings in Madrid.

Mobile phones were used to detonate the bombs, and immediately after the explosions, the ghostly voices of mobiles were ringing out in the wreckage.

Survivors of the bombings were ringing their loved ones on their mobiles, and taking photos of the aftermath. One of those photos which was posted to the Internet soon afterwards, shows a young man spattered with blood. He’s leaning against a wall, and sending a text message.

The bombings came on a Thursday morning, just three days before general elections in Spain. On Saturday, the day before the voting, public outrage, grief and anger, spilled over into demonstrations against the incumbent government. The government was continuing to maintain that the bombings were the work of the Basque terrorist organisation, ETA. And the demonstrations were organised spontaneously by SMS message.

Blanca Tapia is a journalist and columnist for Digital Media, and she lives in Madrid.

Blanca Tapia: I got the first SMS around 12 o’clock in the morning. It was an SMS just saying ‘We the citizens want to know who has done this. We want to ask the government to tell us, because we’re voting tomorrow and want to know the truth, if this is true.’ I think personally that it was some organisations, citizens’ organisations that have been against the war in Iraq that first started saying: This is just way too much. We’re not kids, we have to vote tomorrow and we want to be able to use all the democratic right the best possible way, and in order to do this we need to know if the government is lying to us.

Tom Morton: Under Spanish law, party political demonstrations are banned the day before elections.

The SMS messages simply called on people to assemble outside the headquarters of the Popular Party at 6pm that evening, and they contained two words: ‘ sin partidos ’- ‘without parties’.

Around 5,000 people assembled outside the headquarters of the governing Popular Party in Madrid and Barcelona.

They were hardly large crowds, but government representatives called on the police to disperse them. The police refused, saying the demonstrators weren’t obstructing traffic and were not threatening public order.

Just after 9pm, something extraordinary happened. Mariano Rajoy, the presidential candidate of the Popular Party, interrupted the major evening TV news bulletin, declaring that the Popular Party’s headquarters were under attack.

Blanca Tapia was at the demonstration in Madrid, and she says that Rajoy’s frantic appearance on television blew up a political storm.

Blanca Tapia: Yes, there were 5,000 people outside, but there was absolutely not a single sign of violence at all. It was a completely peaceful demonstration. So actually a lot of people found out that these demonstrations were going on, because he appeared on TV, and said that this was illegal. The first feeling that the citizens had in these very traumatic days, was 'oops, maybe they are trying to cancel the elections', because at that moment he was personally, he was breaking a law, an electoral law that says that not a party, not a single candidate can appear on TV 24 hours before election day, and he suddenly appeared four hours before election day.

Tom Morton: So in fact it seems as though the government or the Popular Party really shot themselves in the foot by doing this, they actually made people much, much more anxious about what was happening, and perhaps increased anti-government feeling by him appearing on the television and calling on the demonstrations to be called off.

Blanca Tapia: Yes, that the general feeling that a lot of people in the news had, because of this major shock, you cannot get more publicity than interrupting the national newscast and appearing on the major news.

Tom Morton: Howard Rheingold says that the SMS demonstrations in Spain are an example of the Smart Mob in action.

Howard Rheingold: They self-organised political demonstrations, using text messaging, using SMS, as the Philippine citizens had when they demonstrated against the Estrada regime in 2000, as the Korean activists did when they tipped the election in favour of President Roh in 2002, so we’re seeing people using mobile communications, particularly text messaging, in the electoral process and in spontaneous demonstrations. And I think the common thread to both of them is that they’re self-organised, rather than the old-fashioned way , where there’s some committee somewhere that organises it from the top down. This is like a peer-to-peer form of self-organising for collective action.

Tom Morton: Perhaps the first time a Smart Mob made its appearance on the political stage was in the Philippines, in January 2001. The then President Estrada was facing impeachment, and at a crucial point in the impeachment hearings, text messaging brought millions of people onto the streets, in what became known as People Power 2.

Man on street: It’s just unfortunate for him, he’s President, his standards are different. The standards that should be imposed on him are different from my standards, I’m an ordinary citizens, I can’t afford …

Tom Morton: The trigger for the People Power 2 demonstrations was a vote in the Senate of the Philippines Parliament, on whether or not to open a sealed envelope. The envelope contained evidence which would have conclusively linked President Estrada to bank accounts used for money laundering and illegal gambling.

When the Senate voted not to open the envelope, Filipinos went into a texting frenzy.

Here’s Marco Garrido, Manila correspondent for Asia Times Online.

Marco Garrido: Texting flooded, really just flooded the population after that, and they were texts that were saying ‘Gather here at this point’, and people showed up immediately. It had this instantaneous quality, in the protests. And it’s clear you know, that this was due to the cell phone, and text. So in that case, the role of texting as a tool of mobilisation, I don’t think in the world has it ever been used to such efficiency before. So in that case, texting, even more than television brought about the downfall of Joseph Estrada.

Tom Morton: The role of the mobile phone in Joseph Estrada’s downfall is commemorated in a mural unveiled in Manila last year. It shows a Filipino peasant holding a cell phone to his ear.

Mobiles and SMS have proved enormously popular in the Philippines, a country where only a tiny percentage of the population can afford to own a computer and use email or the internet. But around 25% of Filipinos have a mobile, more than have a fixed phone line. They send an average of 100-million text messages a day, and again, texting is playing a starring role in the run-up to elections on 10th May this year.

Marco Garrido: Absolutely. And it’s doing it in several ways. One way is the most direct way of course, people are using texting as a way of campaigning. The major candidates have these things called texting brigades, which is basically a group of mostly young people who sit in a room all day and send out text. They do it in a number of ways. They send out texts like the way email Spam is sent out, you know, to random numbers, they could do it that way. Or they could do it, they could send it to people who they know, and ask them to send it to other people, that’s sort of a forwarding method. But the point is, it’s a way to get the word out, affect as many people as possible. And of course it’s inexpensive, which of course in campaign, matters.  

And there’s another way that texting’s been used, and I think it’s going to be more significant as the election nears. Texting is also a way to spread information, and sometimes this information isn’t always accurate. In the Philippines it’s called ‘black propaganda’, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s false information, but it could be information that’s exaggerated, information that’s twisted, but basically it’s negative publicity, is another way of putting it. And it has the effect of people not really knowing what to believe, so the main problem with texting is really that much of the information that it communicates immediately, is inaccurate, and secondly that the perpetrators of this misinformation, well, they can remain anonymous.


Howard Rheingold: Not all groups of people who co-operate to do something have beneficial ends in mind. The nasty side of technology and the empowerment side of technology quite often come together. It’s just recently that we’re beginning to understand I think, the price we pay for the powers that technology grants us.

Tom Morton: Howard Rheingold.

Just as text messages can be used to mobilise protests calling for the truth, they can also be used to spread disinformation, lies and black propaganda. And Smart Mobs can easily turn nasty.

In evidence given to the New South Wales Criminal Court last year as part of a highly publicised gang rape trial, it was alleged that mobile phones and SMS messages had been used to co-ordinate a series of sexual assaults on young women by a group of up to 19 men.

The terrorists who carried out the attacks of September 11th and the Madrid bombers, both used mobile phones to co-ordinate their activities. In fact one of the suspects in the Madrid bombings actually owns a mobile phone shop.

In political polemics, the mob, particularly the revolutionary mob, has often been characterised as anarchic, violent, out of control. Howard Rheingold says he deliberately chose the word ‘mob’ to emphasise the double-edged nature of new technologies.

Howard Rheingold: Not all groups of people who co-operate to do something have beneficial ends in mind. Of course you cite the fear of the revolutionary mob, there’s also the fascist mob, we certainly in the 20th century saw both kinds, mobilised by totalitarians. And then you’ve got the smaller kinds, the riots in the US, what they call the lynch mobs. These are groups of people who organise, self-organise collective action that can be quite nasty. And again, I think that this is true of all jumps in the complexity of social organising that are enabled by communication media.

Tom Morton: Timo Kopomaa likes to put a different spin on the smart mob. He says the protests which overthrew Joseph Estrada in the Philippines, and the SMS demonstrations in Spain show us that politics can’t be purely virtual.

People power needs the theatre of crowds, the visceral thrill of the face-to-face to be effective.

Timo Kopomaa: I think the impact of text messaging is not a new political weapon or something like that, but it helps people to come together and it’s technology people use now when it’s possible to get together. Still I think that it also tells how important it is that we have on the street level, streets and open spaces, squares, they are important, because it’s the only place where people can gather together and show their power. It’s not virtual, in a virtual world it’s not possible. Face-to-face is something which is a very human way to communicate, and that’s something where we always want to go and where we are creative, where we can share experiences and perhaps can show power.

Tom Morton: Timo Kopomaa.

Well whether or not mobiles and text messaging are creating new forms of politics, they’re certainly transforming our personal relationships.

Paul Bolger: Hallo, I’m from Radio National. Can I talk to you about mobile telephones?

Man: Yes, if you like, yes.

Paul Bolger: Do you have one?

Man: Yes, I do. Yes.

Paul Bolger: What do you use it for?

Man: Mostly I use it for work. I’ve got three actually, but I’m using two at the moment. I’ve got one for work, and then one for just, if I’m not at home, which I hardly ever am, because I live by meself, for people getting hold of me and for ringing out, you know, if you get stuck in a traffic jam and stuff like that, all want to get home to somebody, you’re late for dinner.

Paul Bolger: Do you use it to organise to meet people?

Man: On yes, yes, of course. Yes, people ask where you are, what you’re doing. You say, ‘I’m at such-and-such a hotel. There’s a good band on here tonight. What’s it like there?’ ‘Oh yes, well there’s a party down here.’ ‘Oh well, OK get down here you know.

Tom Morton: In the new mobile culture, people no longer meet, they ‘approximeet’.

Mobiles have made our social lives more fluid and flexible, and they’ve also changed our whole notions of private and public space. Finnish social scientist, Timo Kopomaa had his own epiphany about this on a tram.

Timo Kopomaa: One day I remembered I look at a woman in a tram and she was kind of checking her mobile phone and suddenly she was crying. And I just think about what’s happened, and I never know what it meant: What was the message she got? But I think that we are living all the time now in a different way, and we can follow the rhythm of our friends and mates in a very different way than before.

SONG - ‘Can you hear me calling you?’

Tom Morton: I guess the conclusion we could draw from that story about the woman on the train is one that you also draw much more broadly about what mobile phones have done to the way we live, which is that the boundaries between private space and public space are being broken down. Private space has been taken out into the public space.

Timo Kopomaa: Yes, that’s true. In one way we kind of privatise the public space for our own use when we are standing there, we enlarge our territory around us. It’s a kind of bubble which we bring with us and when we are moving, the bubble is moving around with us. But at the same time, when we have this privatisation of public space, we also show our private life, and we talk about this lady who was crying in tram, she also kind of showed her let’s say private feelings very publicly.

Tom Morton: Yes, I’m always amazed by how much people will actually say in public on their mobile phones. I mean I’ve been on the train and heard a young woman talking about the night she’d spent with her boyfriend the night before, and describing in quite a lot of detail what they’d done in bed; I’ve heard someone resign from a job in the train.

Timo Kopomaa: That’s true, and somehow it’s disturbing to listen to these stories. We lost now something, a certain kind of silence, the possibility for silence to be silent in a train like that because there is always someone who is talking to their mobile phones.

Tom Morton: Timo Kopomaa. The new generation of mobile technology could be impinging on our privacy in another quite different way.

Before very long our world is likely to be saturated with tiny wireless devices, and our mobiles will be talking to them and they’ll be talking back.

More and more of the things we buy, our clothes, household appliances, even our groceries, are likely to be embedded with tiny wireless tags. They’re called RFIDs, which is short for Radio Frequency Identification Device. RFIDs are the next evolutionary step up from barcodes. They consist of a microschip and a miniature aerial. Wireless technology links the microchip to a database, which can tell you all about the item it’s attached to, when it was bought, where it was manufactured.

In the supermarket, RFIDs can be used to keep track of what’s on the shelves, what’s in the storeroom out the back, and whether it’s time to order any more peanut butter.

Peter Cole is Professor of Electrical Engineering at Adelaide University. He’s part of an international consortium of universities and business who are developing RFIDs. And he says the tiny tags are good news for retailers, and consumers.

Peter Cole: Well I think most people say the killer application is in the supply chain. It means manufacturers can label their products and their shipping containers so they know where the products are on their way to the store and even within the store. That way, lost stock and out of stock conditions on the shelves can both be avoided. I can see significant advantages to the consumer in achieving that. It’s very frustrating to go to a store and not to be able to find the item they went for.

Tom Morton: If Peter Cole is right, empty shelves at the supermarket could soon be a thing of the past. But already, RFIDs have been involved in a series of consumer controversies. In one notorious recent example, Gillette bought half a billion RFID tags and attached them to packets of razor blades. Razor blades, it seems, are one of the most commonly shoplifted items in the supermarket.

Every time someone took a packet of razor blades off the shelf, a tiny camera snapped a picture of them, without their knowing. When consumer groups raised the alarm, Gillette was forced to withdraw all of the tagged razor blades. You might have heard about it on Radio National’s program, The Buzz.

And only last year in the United States, Walmart was forced to postpone plans to introduce RFIDs in its supermarkets after a vigorous campaign from consumer groups.

The consumer groups worry that RFID tags will enable marketers to build up much detailed profiles of what we buy, where we go, and how we spend our money. And that’s a concern shared by the Ontario Privacy Commission.

Ken Anderson: If the RFID continues to be active and is not cancelled after I leave the store and I purchase a shirt, let’s say, then each time I come back to the store, can someone read and say “Oh there’s that shirt”. Now they may not know that it’s me, they may not know it’s Ken Anderson, but they may know that “Gee, here’s a shirt that was purchased in this store, and in fact that shirt was purchased two weeks ago. Oh, so he comes in every two weeks, this is the second time, I wonder if there’ll be a third time.” And you can start to build store visiting profiles when people used to be anonymous.

Tom Morton: We already leave electronic traces behind us, every time we use credit cards or EFTPOS. Consumer groups worry that RFIDs will multiply those traces, make it easier to track our consuming habits. But Peter Cole says that those fears are unfounded.

Peter Cole: Well I’m myself very doubtful about the role of RFID in creating more information about us. There’s no doubt that the micro-processor revolution and the simultaneously occurring development of large computer systems has made the development of large data bases possible. Fortunately, privacy legislation limits the extent to which the information can be supplied to other people. So much so that those who want to profile people do it by offering rewards for participation in surveys. Now I regard that as evidence that privacy legislation’s working.

Ken Anderson: There appears to be an increasing amount of surveillance, much of it surreptitious. I don’t think by and large for some nasty and evil intent, but nevertheless the psychological feeling that you’re left with that you don’t have private space, can be just as violated through this surreptitious viewing of people with the cameras, with the RFIDs, and not telling people what’s going on.

Tom Morton: Now you might be asking what’s all this got to do with mobiles. Well the simple answer is nothing, just yet. But as the mobile takes on more and more functions, that’s going to change.

Already in some places in Australia you can point your phone at a parking meter and pay for your parking ticket. In the not-too-distant future, phones may well replace plastic cards as the primary form of electronic payment.

As Howard Rheingold puts it, we need to think of it not just as a phone, but as a remote control for our lives. And like it or not, the mobile will be the primary way we interact with the wireless world around us, the world of information in objects, carried by RFIDS. And that could have its advantages. You could point your mobile at the tag in the shirt we were talking about, and have it tell you where the cotton was grown, how much the workers in the factory got paid.

If you think that’s far-fetched, think again. The prototypes are already being built, devices which can unlock the information hidden in good old-fashioned barcodes.

Howard Rheingold: The barcode is connected to something called the Universal Product Code Database, that stores information about those objects. So I have a friend who took a hand-held computer with a wireless connection and installed some off-the-shelf software that turned its camera into a scanner for barcodes. And he said, ‘Well just take it and scan some things around my house.’ So I took it into his kitchen, and I scanned a box of prunes, and the information that came back from the Universal Product Code Database told me who the vendor of those were, it was a company called Sun Diamond Growers’ Co-operative, which sounded to me like some hippies in California who’d got together to sell prunes. I used some software that he had created to just press a button and did a search on Google, the search engine, on that name, and it turned out that the first link that popped up for me was ‘Bromide Barons subvert democratic process’, which was from a partisan political site that accused this growers’ co-operative of being the world’s largest contributor to lobbying against controls on the chemical methyl bromide. So this is information that of course has a lot of political potency. We don’t know that information, it’s hidden in that connection between the barcode and the search engine out there, but that device unlocked it.

Tom Morton: It’s only a short step from unlocking the information in barcodes to doing the same for RFID tags. A do-it-yourself manual for building an RFID scanner is already available on the Internet.

So it’s unlikely to be long before your mobile phone will be able to talk to the objects around you.

Howard Rheingold: Well what if you could use your telephone and point it at a box of cereal or a box of prunes, or a book, or any object that was manufactured that you might want to buy, and find out what a lobbying group, or a consumers group of a political action group has to say about that product. We don’t really know whether the future will enable us to use these technical capabilities to empower many people to use their consumption for political action, or whether we will be constrained from doing so. In fact, I talk about this kind of hidden war over the future, whether we will be active users who shape the media we use.

Tom Morton: That hidden war over the future that Howard Rheingold was talking about, has already begun, and mobiles and mobile technology are the new frontier.

It’s a war between two possible versions of the future. One in which we’ll be smart, self-organising citizens and consumers, and another in which we’re passive participants in what Howard Rheingold calls a ‘universal surveillance economy’.

And here, dear listeners, I’ve got a little confession to make. I don’t own a mobile phone, and I’ve never sent a text message. Maybe I’m a digital dinosaur, or maybe I’m just trying to hang on to a little silence as Timo Kopomaa said. But I can see that the mobilisation of modern life is something that raises questions for us all.

Howard Rheingold: Yes, for better and worse, the virtual world and physical world are becoming very intermingled, they’re no longer the separate places that they used to be. And again, I keep saying for better and worse, because I think that it’s going to make life better for some people in some ways, and it’s going to make life worse for some people in other ways. And it’s I think a good idea for us to look at this future with a critical eye, to not dismiss it, but neither to embrace it without examining what it’s going to do to our lives.

Tom Morton: You’ve been listening to Background Briefing. Our Co-ordinating Producer is Linda McGinness; Technical Producer, Mark Don; Research and additional interviews were by Paul Bolger and Ahri Golden, Web Co-ordinator Richard Gracia, and our Executive Producer is Kirsten Garrett.

I’m Tom Morton, and it’s time for my train now. Stay with us now on Radio National.