[Howard Rheingold in his backyard giant sunflower patch. Photo by Shel Israel]
is a founding father of the Conversational Era. He has spent much of his past 40 years exploring the impact and promise of the
convergence of technology and the human brain. He is a student of the many people, incidents and trends that have brought us to today, and as a prolific thinker, writer and speaker, he has contributed significantly to the body of knowledge and thought.
He's not sure just how many books and articles he has authored or collaborated on, since 1970, but Amazon offers 72 titles with his byline. Two of these books, The Virtual Community
 and Smart Mobs  have
profoundly influenced my thinking and writing over the past half dozen years and if you happened to be into social media he is among the early pioneers who blazed the trail the rest of us have followed. He has been a friend & colleague of many of the thinkers and doers who have delivered us to today and in many cases he can say he had been there and part of the collaborating team that did that. He has also been often prophetic in seeing the seeds that began as visions and have since become reality.
Arizona-born in 1947, he graduated Reed College in Portland, Oregon, then moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he became an integral part of America's most controversial Renaissance Era. He drank the original KoolAid. He also dabbled at Xerox PARC, the legendary tech
experimental tech center where, among other innovations, the personal computer's graphical interface was developed. He started writing professionally in 1970 and has rarely stopped for long.
He was editor of the Whole Earth Catalog Millenium Edition, an almanac that supported the counter-culture lifestyle. Founded by thinker-enterpreneur Stuart Brand, Whole Earth Catalogs were a grassroots compendium of alternative lifestyle resources. A young hippie fruitarian of that time named Steve Jobs would later describe the Catalog as both the forerunner to the Worldwide Web and Google.
Rheingold was an early and enthusiastic member of the San Francisco-based
" Well," the first internet-based
community to gain widespread notice and momentum. His speaking and writing about it, particularly in The Virtual Community introduced a great number of people to the vision of social media for the first time.
These days he continues to write and speak on issues related to the human brain and technology--his central focus throughout his adult life. He also teaches courses at both Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley.
I have divided this interview into two parts. In this first part, Howard reflects and illuminates on what has happened so far. Most of Part 2 will discuss his thoughts on tomorrow, partly by discussing what he sees in his students.
One word of caution: this is not a quick read. It is filled with links to some of the people and events that have brought about the Conversation Age and I hope that you will follow some of these links to see and learn. Maybe it will give you some ideas on what you can contribute to tomorrow.
Q. You attended Reed College in the mid 60s, an elite liberal arts college known for free thought and lifestyle. How did that experience shape who you have become?
It's very astute to start with this question. My relationship with Reed was co-evolutionary: Reed seems to send out a
kind of invisible signal that attracts a certain kind of person, and the people
who are able to stick it out (very high dropout rate) tend to remain "Reedies"
I was a National Merit Scholar, which meant I could
have gotten into any university, but Reed was the only place I applied! I
originally got wind of it because the character in Kerouac's Dharma Bums who
was based on Gary Snyder who went to Reed. Snyder, more than Kerouac, was a hero of
mine when I was 16 years old, so that was about all I needed to know. In
retrospect, I'd say that the dominant characteristics of a person meant for
a. A stubborn commitment to think for oneself
b. A deep and broad interest in texts and intellectual discourse
c. Because of the first two characteristics, we were mostly the smart weird kids in our high schools
d. We dropped out of the brand-name college game
Reed alumni magazine did an article on me, written by Wired [Howard was founding exec editor of Wired.com] writer and fellow Reed alumni Gary Wolf.
The Reed years were 1964-68 for me, so
these were also tumultuous times. And I took a lot of LSD. I want to be clear
on this: Many of my friends got in serious trouble or died because of drugs
(and many more because of one drug: alcohol), so I'm not an advocate of
indiscriminate use of recreational drugs. But LSD was an extremely important
influence on my thinking.
I didn't drop acid and go to concerts. I
dropped acid and stayed in my room and painted, read -- I read most of the
Bible on acid -- and explored other dimensions with my fellow travelers.
particular 1968 -- the Tet offensive, Prague Spring, China's Red Guards and Cultural Revolution; May revolt in Paris;
Chicago, and assassinations of RF Kennedy and ML King; riots in American cities. We
weren't participants in these events, but the world stage seemed particularly
apocalyptic. I became convinced that we were living in times that would decide
the future of the human experiment, and just as I went to Reed because I wanted
to engage in a meaningful and deep dialogue with others about the curriculum
(the sex, drugs, and rock&roll were part of it, but were always secondary
to the intellectual quest), I left Reed and entered the world with a conviction
that what I said and did with my education would matter not just to me but to
When I got involved with people I met from the Well, my wife, who I met at Reed said: "This is just like Reed. A bunch of intelligent misfits have found each other and are going to town."
Q. The common thread that seems to tie your considerable
writing and thought together is the interaction of the human brain and
technology. It seems to have developed in the early 80s between your work
with The Whole Earth Catalog and your involvement with The Well. Can you walk me through how that developed?
The brain and technology--and evolution and consciousness--were the subjects of my undergraduate thesis. One of the things that LSD taught me was that what we think we know about our minds is tiny compared to what we have to learn. I felt technology would open a new front, along with that of chemical agents (it's too bad that legitimate psychedelic research was shut down), and the approaches pointed to by Eastern mysticism, in understanding consciousness -- which seemed to me to be the essential stuff of which the universe is made.
I had what I later learned I could call a "noetic" conviction about these conjectures, and was determined to somehow add to our body of knowledge about our minds and how we could control our minds better.
3. You coined the term “Virtual Community” and it became the title of one of your most influential books. It’s first chapter talked about the Parenting group in The Well. Your stories in that chapter are strikingly close to stories I found in Twitter. Can you compare/contrast The Well and Twitter? What has remained the same and what has changed?
Absolutely true! In my first months on Twitter, I told fellow Well veterans Twitter felt just like
the Well. While it would be a
categoric error to call the Twitter population in general a community, it was
clear that communities were forming there. People were getting to know each
other, strangers were engaging in discussions with each other; new forms of fun
were being invented; new ways to use the platform to communicate socially like the hashtag and retweet were being invented by users; people were exchanging
and reciprocating knowledge; social capital was accumulating in some groups.
At the same time, Twitter
was totally different. In the Well, each user might participate in different
topic threads in different conferences (forums), but the discussions were
centered on topics and were like places where a group of people accumulated. In
each discussion, we paid attention to each other. In Twitter there is no
such social symmetry. There are no topics, outside of hashtags and each person
sees a different group of others.
Despite, and because of, this asymmetry, Twitter always had a social vibrancy.
Another similarity is the
sense among the users that what we were co-creating with the Twitter founders
would take on new forms as we went along. The Well was built on Unix, so coders
and users were in dialogue, but with the Twitter's open API and the explosion
of third-party applications, that co-evolving relationship seems to be in
Twestival, 300,000 tweets/hour from Tehran, the Twitpic of the
airplane that landed in the Hudson -- events that change our minds about what
Twitter can be used for seem to be happening with increasing frequency
Q. For the benefit of our studio audience, just what
do you mean when you say the computer is an amplifier of the human mind?
I've learned that most people don't know much history, and those who
know it seem to quickly forget it. Until a couple of mavericks who were not at
all related to the existing computer industry started thinking seriously about
using digital computers to augment human intellect and create new communication
media, this was a crazy idea.
Computers were for scientific calculations and
business data processing. But JCR Licklider [computer time-sharing], Doug Engelbart [the mouse], Bob Taylor [the internet], Alan
Kay [graphical interface] thought differently. What if we could move words around on a screen by
pointing at them, instead of retyping the whole page? What if we could create
documents as outlines, then expand and contract them so we can zoom from big
picture to detail? What if we could command computers by clicking on icons instead
of typing commands? What if we could link texts, documents, and different media
and move smoothly from one to another by clicking on the link?
these low-level symbol manipulation tasks, would that free the brain to take in
larger pictures, see relationships between micro and macro levels that couldn't
be observed, try many more hypotheses than old methods afforded? All these
capabilities seem obvious today, but not only were they not obvious until
Engelbart's Mother of All Demos in 1968. I told the story of this creation of
revolutionary innovation by a small group of outsiders in my book, Tools
for Thought. I started using a modem when I first started exploring personal
computer culture in the early 1980s, but didn't join the Well until after Tools
for Thought was published in 1985.
I started out to make a living as a writer when I was 23, in 1970. I had a typewriter, a telephone, and a library card. Comparing the tools I had for thinking, researching, communicating, organizing back then with what I have now, it's like starting out my career with a horse and buggy and now I have my own 747.
It took me about 5 seconds to look up the passage of Engelbart's that originally fired me up, and to copy it. And I did it sitting here in my garden, via laptop and WiFi. Keeping in mind what I said previously about my interests in brain and technology and my conviction regarding this historical moment and my role and responsibility to it, it still makes sense to me as an answer to your question:
By "augmenting human intellect" we mean increasing the capability of a man to approach a complex problem situation, to gain comprehension to suit his particular needs, and to derive solutions to problems. Increased capability in this respect is taken to mean a mixture of the following: more-rapid comprehension, better comprehension, the possibility of gaining a useful degree of comprehension in a situation that previously was too complex, speedier solutions, better solutions, and the possibility of finding solutions to problems that before seemed insoluble. And by "complex situations" we include the professional problems of diplomats, executives, social scientists, life scientists, physical scientists, attorneys, designers -- whether the problem situation exists for twenty minutes or twenty years. We do not speak of isolated clever tricks that help in particular situations. We refer to a way of life in an integrated domain where hunches, cut-and-try, intangibles, and the human "feel for a situation" usefully coexist with powerful concepts, streamlined terminology and notation, sophisticated methods, and high-powered electronic aids. Man's population and gross product are increasing at a considerable rate, but the complexity of his problems grows still faster, and the urgency with which solutions must be found becomes steadily greater in response to the increased rate of activity and the increasingly global nature of that activity. Augmenting man's intellect, in the sense defined above, would warrant full pursuit by an enlightened society if there could be shown a reasonable approach and some plausible benefits.
In 2002, you authored Smart Mobs, which has been critically acclaimed for it’s foreshadowing of social media. Among the incidents that most impressed me was how street people used mobile SMS to out maneuver police & eventually overthrow the government. When the Iran election took place in June of this year, did you see a certain similarity? How did has technology involved to empower people. Where do you see/hope it is ultimately headed?
Let me start with the conclusion and then unpack it:
With a billion people on the Internet and 4 billion mobile phones, the ability to
gain information, to process it computationally, to organize collective action
with others, to publish and broadcast has been radically democratized -- but
whether or not that democratized communication and coordination capability will
lead to more or less democracy is not a function of the technology but of the
social, political, economic activities of the people who use it.
The events in
Iran should be an object lesson that access to digital media and networks
guarantees that it will be impossible to keep the world from witnessing massive
oppression, but does not guarantee the victory of forces of counterpower who
seek liberty from oppression. Power always wakes up and mobilizes when
counterpower threatens it.
The Iranian regime broadcast disinformation. They
shut down Internet access. They ran cloaked proxy servers as honey pots to
catch dissidents. So far, they are succeeding.
In China, the Great Firewall and
tens of thousands of human cyber-police make sure that over a quarter billion Chinese
netizens enjoy the power to do anything they want online as long as it doesn't
challenge the authority of the party.
The victory of smart mobs is not
guaranteed by the power of the tools they hold in their hands. That's just
magical thinking. However, the events I described in my book were real. There
were other forces at work in the Philippines -- there are always other forces
at work -- but the SMS-organized People Power II demonstrations were a large
part of what brought down the Estrada regime. The elections of heads of state
were tipped away from the frontrunner through smart-mobbed demonstrations and
get out the vote campaigns in Korea and Spain.
Where do I see it headed? My experiences have convinced me that the most important focus for public attention right now should shift to the literacies that bring power to those who possess them and leave behind those who don't know how to use their telephone as a medical instrument, educational medium, social radar, political organizing tool.
fabrication plants, teenage personal computer wizards and moguls, networks of
fiber optics and satellites have played and will continue to play their parts
in the distribution of computing and communication power to every human on
But now that devices with such enormous untapped power are in the hands
of so many, the factor that will most powerfully shape the resulting social
institutions is literacy. My definition of "literacy" builds the
thinking of Neil Postman: I mean the inward-looking skill that enables an
individual to read and write, to decode and encode messages with a medium, and
I also refer to the external community to which this skill provides entrance.
As I've written recently in regard to "Crap Detection 101," the literacies I am talking about are not just about individual empowerment, but
are crucial to the health of the commons.
We can't stop the Web from being overwhelmed with misinformation, disinformation, hoaxes, urban legends, spam, porn, porn-spam by controlling the sources - the Web is powerful precisely because there are no controls on what people put on it. We can only guarantee the ultimate health of the Web as a source of useful and trustworthy information by encouraging the spread of crap detection skills. That, to me, is the most important meaning of the "social" in "social media" -- that we are not just amplifying our minds and showing off for each other, we are learning and organizing, creating, innovating, building, liberating together.
To me, individualism versus collectivism is a toxically false dichotomy. Humans are humans because of our individual capabilities, the evolved genius of what we've taught each other to do with our expanded forebrains. But the "taught each other to do" part is crucial. Our individual genius would not only be useless, it wouldn't exist without our social interchanges.