Mobile Intelligence

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Douglas Schuler
Public Sphere Project

While we make our plans the opportunity vanishes. The world changes while you're still trying to figure out what the question is. We can't think or act intelligently in relation to the world if we think statically. The main problem is that we think that things change, one-at-a-time in ways that can be readily foreseen when, in actuality, things are constantly in flux. Misunderstanding of possibilities, mob tendencies, privacy abuses, subject to manipulation and control.


This pattern addresses the need for exploring (with the hope of improving) Mobile Intelligence. It's intended for researchers, activists, citizens and for anybody who is trying to make sense of the world.


John Urry articulated the need to reconceptualize sociology in such a way to better understand and explore the "mobilities" of our era (2000). Mobilities characterize movement from one state to another in the broadest sense. A reconceptualization of social mobilities extends the core notion of people moving from one place to another, whether to fight — or escape from — a war, pursue economic opportunities that aren't available at home, visit family, attend college, make a religious pilgrimages, conduct business or visit resorts or museums as a tourist. Urry reminds us that people are not the only entities in the social universe. These new mobilities include the movement of commodities, raw materials, microbes, mobs and soccer hooligans, AK-47s and fissionable material, ideologies, tactics, criminal networks, social issues, social movements, money (legitimate and otherwise), brands, virtual communities, financial information, smuggled people, radioactivity, movies, pirated DVDs, pollution, oil, electricity, water, surveillance, terrorist cells, drugs, and credit card information. In addition to those mobilities social status of individuals and, even identity itself, can change through movement to a higher or lower economic class, becoming a citizen — or refugee — in another country, or undergoing a sex change or religious conversion.

Urry points out that sociology places social interaction at is core and is therefore the proper intellectual home for these considerations. Yet sociology as it's currently construed was created at a certain point in Western history and it often presupposes notions like structure or function that belie the inherent complexity of social interactions, forces, etc. Its area of focus is like the old "flat earth" perspective where the areas outside the known territory are simply terra incognito.. Urry advocates a new type of sociology that extends the traditional sociological tenets to a new sociology that more accurately reflects today's realities. Specifically Urry adds, networks and fluids to the traditional idea of "region" (upon which "metaphor" the "sociological concept of society is based") as important exemplars to be added to the new mix of phenomena and artifacts that need to be considered when interpreting new social realities. Networks contain structure or what Urry calls "scapes," the "networks of machines, technologies, organizations, texts and actors that constitute various interconnected nodes," and "flows" which pass through the "scapes." Fluids, unlike networks, don't move discretely from node to node along scapes but are "heterogeneous, uneven mobilities of people, information, objects, money, images, and risks, that move chaotically across regions in strikingly faster and unpredictable shapes."

Some of the patterns in this language are ambiguous and hazy and whose recommendations can be summarized with non-committal "more research is needed" statements. One may get the impression that "more research" is always needed — if you ask an academic. Given the fact that all knowledge is incomplete, it may seem impossible to avoid that "last refuge" of a scholar, who is seemingly unable to make recommendation, until, they claim, their new research — once funded — will certainly bring the results that would enable them to make recommendations. The "Mobile Intelligence" pattern is one of those (hopefully few) patterns that generally follow the line above. It will surely morph in future versions of the language, possibly by splitting into several patterns that exploit new opportunities — or confront new threats — that were undreamt of today.

The coverage of this pattern extends from the most abstract and theoretical to the nitty-gritty street level. It relates to how we think and converse in broad strokes, about social change, the environment, etc. when we take the time outside of other work, as well as our thoughts and action when we're thrown-in a situation (Heidegger, 1962). In an example of the latter, Mary Jordan (2006) reports on an emerging new type of Mobile Intelligence:

"Cell phones and text messaging are changing the way political mobilizations are conducted around the world. From Manila to Riyadh and Kathmandu protests once publicized on coffeehouse bulletin boards are now organized entirely through text-messaging networks that can reach vast numbers of people in a matter of minutes.

The technology is also changing the organization and dynamics of protests, allowing leaders to control, virtually minute-by-minute, the movements of demonstrators, like military generals in the field. Using texts that communicate orders instantly, organizers can call for advances or retreats of waves of protesters."

And in 2003, when US President George Bush on a visit to London was keeping as far from the public eye as he could, protesters set up a "Chasing Bush" system that encouraged people to announce their Bush-sightings via the SMS on their cell phones which would then be relayed to protesters who would hasten to the location. The "Flash Mob" concept, in which a "spontaneous" gathering of a large number of people at a rug store or hotel lobby has been orchestrated with the aid of fast and inexpensive access to mobile communications, provides a glimpse into the future as to the absurd and amusing possibilities that the new technology can bring. It's easy to see that mobile communications has its dark sides, a point that Howard Rheingold brings up in his aptly-titled book Smart Mobs. A mob consists of people who are operating wholly at the limbic level. While "rationality" and "cool-headed reason" may be flawed, over-rated, and mostly mythical as operating concepts, consider a world in which they were totally absent.

New technologies (such as GPS, cell phones, cell phones with GPS, RFID, "smart cards", bar codes, laptops, "augmented reality" (where commercial information can be broadcast to your goggles), wireless technologies like 802.11b, etc..) are changing and are likely to continue to change our urban settings in particular (which are already undergoing massive changes due to globalization and new patterns of human settlements). Alex Steffen on his World Changing web site quotes the following from the Breaking the Game conference (2006) both permeate urban spaces (changing their uses) and change the way we look at buildings and place (changing development).

"[A]n emerging group of artists [is] deploying sensors, hand-held electronics, and faster Internet connections are developing projects that actively intervene in the shaping and reshaping of public spaces in contemporary cities. They are integrating digital technology into buildings in order to make them adaptive and responsive to the flows of human activity and environmental forces... They are scanning the unseen electromagnetic spectrum that surrounds specific places, and turning these data into compelling audio/visual experiences that both heighten and change our perception... Using PDAs and portable laptops connected wirelessly to databases, some artists are creating alternative social maps, counter-histories and individually annotated narratives about local populations in specific neighborhoods... Still others are using mobile social software to coordinate large numbers of bodies for political action; or devising playful and imaginary spaces within the city.... We don't have to leave or disconnect from physical space in order to connect to digital spaces. Artists, architects, technologists, urban planners, and others are recombining the two, connecting individuals and groups together at a variety of scales and intensities."

It is an understatement to say that mobile communications represents a major historic shift from historical patterns of communications. The Internet (and other) information and communication technologies have helped usher in tremendous changes already, but these changes may represent just the tip of the iceberg. Mobile communication is fast and increasingly commonplace. It opens up whole new arenas of both thought and action. Like many new technologies, the opportunities for abuse are legion — and critics should not be cowed into submission by new digital salesmen and their cheerleaders in the media. Some of the dimensions by which to consider barriers, boundaries and opportunities include: accessibility (costs of producing/consuming, location, language, etc.); relative size and influence and the relationship configuration between information producer and consumer (one or few or many or mass to one or few or many or mass); privacy, regulation, and control; motivation for use; and user demographics.

Sociologists, historians and others are now realizing that social phenomena (like environmental phenomena) are inherently complex. This means that we can't really know with certainty what the effects of our actions will be. Although this has always been the case, the realization is only now getting some traction. Moreover, many people — if not most — still seem to deny its reality and think and act according to older paradigms. Accepting its reality does not mean of course that we don't know anything or that anything can happen, What is different now is the increased speed, reach, and influence of the mobility. Imagine a missile latching on to the frequency of a cell phone or myriad consequences of remote observation, sensing, and surveillance. On a larger scale, consider the vulnerability or volatility of a complex physical, social, or technological environment where critical limits or "tipping points" in many important areas are likely to be breached at the same time.

While much of our time in the future will certainly be spent trying to repulse the efforts of people who will use (and attempt to use) Mobile Intelligence to increase their dominance over others, one of the main points of this pattern is to encourage the exploration of positive possibilities that the new technology opens up. One such area is in the realm of emergency communications. What difference could it make in a situation like the Chernobyl disaster or Hurricane Katrina? We could also gather data about dangerous conditions — speed of cars, air or water quality, radioactivity and other mobile phenomena.


We can think of Mobile Intelligence in at least three ways: (1) intelligence about a variety of mobilities; (2) intelligence that can be used in different situations (where the intelligence itself is mobile or "portable"); and, (3), mobile intelligence that moves us forward; in other words the intelligence mobilizes people. As researchers, activists and citizens, we can consciously ask about the "mobility" of our intelligences — and reconceptualize them as necessary.

Verbiage for pattern card: 

We can't think or act intelligently in relation to the world if we think statically. The problem is that we think that things change, one-at-a-time when things are constantly in flux. The answer changes while you're still trying to understand the question. One of the main points of Mobile Intelligence is encouraging positive possibilities that the new technology opens up, such as emergency communications.

Pattern status: 
Information about introductory graphic: 
Two Figures in an Interior, Franciszka Themerson, Wikimedia Commons