Digerati - Chapter 24

Digerati - Chapter 24

Howard Rheingold [10.1.96]

Chapter 24


Howard Rheingold

THE CYBERANALYST (Sherry Turkle): Howard Rheingold sees things that others simply hadn't noticed before. And he knows how to explain why they are important and why you need to pay attention to them.

Howard Rheingold is the author of Virtual Reality (1991), and The Virtual Community (1993), and was the editor of Whole Earth Review and the Millennium Whole Earth Catalog (1995). His weekly column, "Tomorrow," is syndicated by King Features. His new webzine, Electric Minds, can be found at www.minds.com. 

In the fifteen years I have known him, Howard Rheingold has evolved from a modest, quiet, thoughtful working writer/editor into the flamboyant Howard "always ten years ahead of his time" Rheingold. From his dazzling hand-designed shoes to his vividly colored suits and his TV ads for Kinko's, he has invented his own character‹spokesman, communications expert, celebrity, lecturer, writer, thinker, wise man, one of the first people to recognize the potential of a new medium for human communication.

In 1991, Howard and I had been discussing an editorial I wrote about in my newsletter EDGE #1 electronically linked networks and The Well (The Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link) in particular. Howard was one of the founders of The Well's online culture, and moderator ("host") of The Well's earliest and most successful conference. He was foremost among a small group of hosts who created the social and intellectual architecture of Well culture and governance.

My own attitude at that time was less enthusiastic than Howard's. I could buy into the line that The Well was important, but problems remained: a Unix-based user interface beneath contempt; a stilted and mannered conversational etiquette (the mimicking of the narrative voice of its founder, Stewart Brand); a lack of filters‹which means that people you can't bear to hear from are electronically in your face. No unlisted phone numbers. No answering machines to hide behind. No office staff to screen calls and mail.

French thinker Jean Baudrillard wrote about "virtual man" in Xerox and Infinity: "immobile in front of his computer, [he] makes love by the screen and gives classes by teleconference. He becomes a spastic, probably with a cerebral handicap too. This is the cost of becoming effective. Just as we can suggest that glasses or contact lenses might one day become the integrated prosthesis of a species whose gaze will have gone, so can we fear that artificial intelligence and its technical aids will become the prosthesis of a species whose thought will have disappeared."

Howard's response to my editorial was that people on The Well had discovered that a new kind of technology-assisted social contract was making it possible to do what technology alone was not yet able to do. He went on to make the following observation as we sat together in a country general store in Washington, Connecticut (fully five years before the creation of the World Wide Web):

The Well serves as a communications filter as well as an information filter.

The communications revolution will bring enormous information and communications resources to individuals, and along with those resources, the capabilities to build new communities.

The Well and the Internet and linked networks will grow to involve tens of millions of users worldwide; backbone sites and some local loops will upgrade to fiber-optic channels and gigabit transmission rates will enable multimedia conferencing, video email, and other high-density information exchanges.

Two major trends seem to be working in rather opposite directions: first, more and more people worldwide are gaining access to vast pools of possible partners in communities of interest; second, the increasing threats to privacy and the increasingly technological ability to screen communications make it possible for people to construct 'communities of exclusion' that specify, via smart cards or similar devices, who should be prevented from gaining access to them via communications;even those who have the most privileged access to advanced communications might find that our own devices will work against our best interests in subtle ways.

In order to create a filter, you would need to know what is relevant.

From all this, you might expect that Howard is a leading technologist. Not so. Howard is distinguished among the digerati because he is perhaps the only one who is not a "cubicle person." He's more passionate about his abundant garden than he is about his computer and modem; this world is his workstation.

Howard is, and always has considered himself to be, a writer. Howard's Tools for Thought, his version of "what happened," written in 1984, remains one of the best books written on modern technology:

"When a caterpillar transforms into a butterfly, it undergoes a biologically unique process. Ancient observers noticed the similarity between the changes undergone by a butterfly pupa and those of the human mind when it undergoes the kind of transformation associated with a radical new way of understanding the world‹in fact the Greek word for both butterfly and soul is psyche.

"After the caterpillar has wound itself with silk, extraordinary changes begin to happen within its body. Certain cells, known to biologists as imaginal cells, begin to behave very differently from their normal caterpillar cells. Soon, these unusual cells begin to affect cells in their immediate vicinity. The imaginal cells begin to grow into colonies throughout the body of the transforming pupa. Then, as the caterpillar cells begin to disintegrate, the new colonies link to form the structure of the butterfly's body.

"At some point, an integrated supercolony of transformed cells that had once crawled along the ground emerges from the cocoon and flies off into the spring sky on multicolored wings. If there is a positive image of the future of human-computer relations, perhaps it is to be seen reflected in the shapes of the imaginal cells of the information culture‹from eight-year-olds with fantasy amplifiers to knowledge engineers.

"If it is true that the human brain probably started out as a rock-throwing variation on the standard hominid model, it has also proved capable of creating the Sermon on the Mount, the Mona Lisa, and The Art of the Fugue. If it is true that the personal computer started out as an aid to ballistic calculations, it is also true that a population equipped with low-cost, high-power computers and access to self-organizing distributed networks has in its hands a potentially powerful defense against any centrally organized technological tyranny.

Howard "always ten years ahead of his time" Rheingold: "I'm a stiff-necked Jew," he says. He's stubborn, he pisses people off, sometimes shooting himself in the foot at the same time. All of this makes him honest, exemplary.

Howard Rheingold is "The Citizen."

THE CITIZEN (Howard Rheingold): The Web is two things. Most people are concentrating on the first part, which is a control panel on the Internet. Instead of having to get under the hood and understand arcane computer codes, you can look at a graphical interface, point at what you want, click on words, and automatically be transported to the Louvre or automatically download something from the Library of Congress. This interface breakthrough makes the Internet accessible to the people of the world who aren't computer literate.

The second aspect of the Web‹publishing capability‹is its real power. You can sign up with a commercial server for maybe twenty dollars a month. Using a desktop computer and an inexpensive digital camera, you can put text and pictures together, format them easily, and upload them with your modem, so people all over the world can access the material. The price of the means of production and the price of the means of distribution have dropped so drastically that we have a potential watershed, the way we had when the printing press made literacy available outside the elite of the church.

Of course, nobody would be surfing the Web if the Web didn't have a lot of interesting stuff on it. The fact is, the first two years of the Web, almost everybody who spent time putting material up did it for free, because it was a cool thing to do. Amateurism has a bad name, but most media of any consequence have been created for free by people who thought it was a cool thing to do. If tens of thousands of people don't continue to create their personal Web sites, and if all we get are the Disney, ABC, Sony, and Rupert Murdoch versions of the world, it will be an immensely impoverished medium, the way television is a powerful and yet impoverished medium.

Publishers have a lot of money invested in intellectual property and the infrastructure for putting that intellectual property into a form that can be distributed. That's had to do with owning forests and paper and printing presses. Now, with electronic means of distribution, publishers and big entertainment conglomerates spend a lot of money on content. But the tail that wags the dog is not content‹it's discourse. For every book published, there's a community of people who read that book. They may read every book by that author or about that topic, and they think about it that book or topic. If they had access to one another, they would talk about their thoughts. The real future is not selling chunks of content to passive consumers, but creating a context within which those consumers can be active and speak to each other. For authors, readers, and publishers, this transformation from a world of mass into a world of bits has to do not with content and something frozen, but with a continuous stream of discourse.

Another reality is that with a couple of keystrokes you can copy anything in electronic form. You can no longer count on owning the sole rights to reproduce words or images as your only means of income. The instant you put up something interesting, people can link to it from their sites and draw traffic to their sites. The only thing you can own is not a piece of property but a reputation for having consistently good material that draws people to your site first. That reputation is something you have to feed every day, and it's also something that accretes a following. It's more like a subscription to a magazine than it is like buying a book.

Can people maintain relationships with a sufficiently large audience and persuade that audience to pay them? That's the economic question being asked about the Web. Maybe the fact that you can copy anything and link to anything will ultimately destroy the intellectual property business, unless we can find an alternate way to pay the people who create property. Because copyright notions are out the window, you can't own yesterday's intellectual properties the way you used to. All you can own is tomorrow's intellectual property.

Some skill sets overlap between the era of intellectual property in the form of a movie or a book and the era of intellectual property as a stream of discourse as found on the Internet. You can be extreme and say that being able to keep people entertained in a conversation is not the same intellectual skill that Shakespeare or Tom Wolfe had, that it's more like being a borscht-belt comedian. It's an extension of what television brought us, which is discourse as a form of entertainment. That's a radical critique, and it's not totally inaccurate. However, among people who are perfectly good thinkers and writers, there is a subset who are not afraid to engage their readers and critics directly and entertainingly, in a more extemporaneous form, like a computer conference or a computer chat. It's a different craft. To craft a book or an article means going over those words again and again, very carefully considering each one. It's like creating a sculpture and making sure that every part is perfect. You can't do that with conversation. You have to think on your feet, and once you've said the words, once you've typed them in, they're gone. They're out there. You don't have the separation between you and the audience that traditional authors have. Every listener and reader can call you on your mistakes and challenge you on your assumptions.

A lot of journalists and writers irrationally fear breaching the wall between the author and the audience. There are good journalistic reasons for not allowing, say, the technology editor of The New York Times or Time magazine to be influenced by the lobbyists from the industries that they're covering. But I don't see why any journalist with integrity can't argue with anybody about anything and reveal a personal opinion in a forum, and still try to attain some degree of objectivity when writing with a journalist's hat on. Another part of the skill set is an ability to recognize that sometimes I have my journalist's hat on, which carries with it certain ethics and responsibilities, and at other times I am a person having a conversation with other people about the material that I've written. There is a place for that, and it's not just borscht-belt comedy‹it's discourse. There will be stars and artists in that form of discourse, just as there are in books and magazines.

Because I sit in front of a computer, and for many years sat in front of a typewriter, alone all day, I have a need to connect with other people. When someone told me that if I connected my computer to my telephone, through a modem, I could participate in online conversation‹about ten years ago, when Stewart Brand, Kevin Kelly, and some other folks had started The Well‹I fell right into it. Not just as a way to connect with interesting people, but also as a new way to exercise my communication capabilities.

Being online turned out to be writing as performance art. I spent hours a day having interesting online written conversations with other people. Eventually I realized that something important was happening, not just for me and a few intellectuals. It was a new mode of human communication, and like other previous media, it was going to change civilization. I wrote a book, The Virtual Community, to tell this to people who weren't particularly technically oriented.

An interesting thing happened as I traveled and talked to people in the industry, in communications companies, and in government. The relationship of communications to power became much more evident to me, which is surprising, because I've never been a political thinker or a political writer. The fact is that the power in the world today does not lie in weapons of destruction. It lies in the ability to influence people's beliefs and perceptions. If you want to overthrow a government, you don't attack the army, you attack the television broadcasting station. Being able to plug my computer into the telephone network and publish a manifesto, or even to upload a videotape of the police beating somebody outside my window and invite people to discuss it in my bulletin board system is a radical power shift.

Here we are, in the mid-1990s, hearing all this b.s. about the information superhighway. People are not talking about the profound power shift that could influence democracy, about the communities, about the people who need support. They're not talking about the kids in the one-room schoolhouses in Saskatchewan who now have access to the Library of Congress, or the Alzheimer caregivers, or the disabled who find support and community. We're hearing the same old stuff about five hundred channels, and Disney buys ABC, and giant entertainment corporations that make it possible to download videos instead of walking two hundred yards to a video store. I wouldn't call it the Big Lie, but I would say that 99 percent of what most people hear in the mass media about the new medium is about the wrong part of it. It's the froth on the surface of something profound.

A critique of living in the virtual world is emerging. It's important to be aware of what we are trading in the natural world for this dazzling electronic world, and that we become aware of the limitations and pitfalls of the virtual world. The virtual world is a very good illusion-maker, and missing from it are some things that are essential to human life. But I resent the shallowness of the critics who say that if you sit in front of a computer and participate in online conversations worldwide you are not leading an authentic life. I question the premise that one person can judge the authenticity of another person's life. Millions of people passively watch television all day long. Don't tell me that having an email relationship with someone on the other side of the world is less authentic than sitting alone and watching the tube. For many people, this new medium is a way of breaking out of the virtual world they already live in.

I manage to use the computer as a means to live the kind of life that I want to live. When the weather is nice, I can carry my computer outdoors with me. I wrote Virtual Reality and The Virtual Community in my garden. After twenty years of working in little rooms, being out on the lawn in my bare feet, under the plum tree, is infinitely preferable. In that sense, having the ability to use a computer and computer communications frees me to spend a lot of time in the nonvirtual world. Metaphorically, spending the work week in the virtual world, staring at a computer screen, accumulates a lot of electrons. At least once a week, I spend my day dealing not with computers, but with plants.

THE SCOUT (Stewart Brand): One of the ways that The Well realized it was a community was when it caught on that it had pillars of the community, most notably Howard. Few have noticed that he wrote one of the best, earliest histories of applied computer science, Tools For Thought.

THE LOVER (Dave Winer): Rheingold is probably one of the very few totally honest people in this business.

THE ORACLE (Paul Saffo): Howard Rheingold is the first citizen of cyberspace. He is someone who followed his interests into this arena and continues today to keep pushing the edges. He is like one of those trappers in the Old West who helped open up the territory. As it started filling up with other people, he got restless and nervous and headed over the next range of foothills to discover the next frontier.

THE GADFLY (John C. Dvorak): Howard is a guy who knows how to write popular books and should just keep doing that for a living.

THE CATALYST (Linda Stone): Howard brings a combination of art, the '60s, and social responsibility to the work that he's done online and for the online community. He's a person with a tremendous amount of courage.

THE SCRIBE (John Markoff): Howard's a wonderful guy, but I worry that he may have taken a little too much LSD. I was very impressed that he walked away from HotWired so quickly. I thought that said something positive about Howard.

THE SEER (David Bunnell): Howard plays a very positive role in making the digital realm less threatening to outsiders. Howard is one of our finest ambassadors.

THE COYOTE (John Perry Barlow): Howard had a huge effect on me. I wasn't particularly interested in computer technology. I wanted to think about new contexts for communities. Howard, one of the mavens of the Deadhead culture on The Well, was instrumental in getting me to see a new venue for community. He is an elder of my village in cyberspace.

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Excerpted from Digerati: Encounters with the Cyber Elite by John Brockman (HardWired Books, 1996) . Copyright © 1996 by John Brockman. All rights reserved.