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The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier H. Rheingold (MIT Press, reissued January 2000)

Tools for Thought: The History and Future of Mind-Expanding Technology H. Rheingold (MIT Press, reissued April 2000)

They Have a Word for It: A Lighthearted Lexicon of Untranslatable Words & Phrases H. Rheingold (Sarabande Books, reissued August 2000)

Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming S. LaBerge, H. Rheingold (Ballentine, 1997)

Virtual Reality H. Rheingold (Touchstone Books, 1993)

 

Early in my work life, I shelved books at a used-book store in a delightful college town. The proprietor gave me the job after quizzing me on a long-series of author’s names to find out if I knew anything about these writers or where their books might be best placed. Though I didn’t know as many of the authors as I thought I would, he was encouraged by my creative answers and absolute love of learning more about each. Since that first day on the job, I’ve become a fan of used bookstores, and more recently websites like Advanced Book Exchange (ABE) and Alibris. To this day, I find few activities more fun than visiting a store where you can see the future through the eyes of the books in the past. In these used-haunts, the first books I look for are those by Howard Rheingold, rabble-rouser, technophile, futurist extraordinaire, and part-time artist. He introduced me to the notion of Virtual Communities, Virtual Reality, and the meanings of words such as fisselig and ho'oponopono. After having a chance to sit down and talk with him this winter, I only wish we had been sitting in a used bookstore, with the smell of the slightly dusty pages filling the rest of our senses. It’s about the only way this conversation could have affected me any more.

Conner:  I’d like you to begin by telling us what you’re learning from these days and how you got started looking so far forward.

Rheingold:  I am, primarily, a writer and became interested in technology about the time you could start using computers to write with. That interested me and drew me into finding out where these devices came from.

While most of the mass media’s gave the impression that Steve Jobs at Apple and Bill Gates at Microsoft invented the personal computer, there was a more interesting story, which was that Doug Engelbart and the folks at Xerox PARC had actually been working for many decades to create a tool that would specifically extend capabilities of the human mind.

There’s a kind of historical amnesia that has become evident to me about how things came about. But in fact, in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, the idea that ordinary people (that is, not computer technicians or “white coats” in special rooms) could operate computers and use them, not for scientific calculations or business data processing, but to think and compose and communicate and design and teach and learn with. That was a radical idea that did not come from either the computer industry or orthodox computer science. It came from a few people who really had a vision. Their vision was that this tool—that had been created for warfare—could be turned to the benefit of humankind.

Conner:  Is that were you came in contact with Doug Engelbart?

Rheingold:  Yes. Doug was and remains an inspiration to me, because he started not with, “How do I create a new technology or a new industry or make a million dollars,” but rather, “How can we help people solve problems together collectively?” That’s what he started out with in the 1950s and much of what we know as computer technology today came from that. So, I wrote about that story in the 1980s looking forward to the days when—as predicted by these pioneers—hundreds of millions of people would have these powerful computers all linked up into this big network. What would that mean? Now of course we’re living in that world.

I became interested in communicating online, back in the 1980s in the computer bulletin board era, and then became involved with The Well. There, before the Internet was popular, I looked at all the different ways people used it to socialize online—through bulletin boards, use of the news groups and dot channels, MUDs and MOOs, and conversing systems like The Well. I wrote The Virtual Community in 1993, really about where the world was going with social communication online.

A lot has happened since then: the Internet became a very big deal that eventually changed everything. Again, we see kind of a rolling amnesia about it. The dot.com era that we’re now kind of moving out of, and the enormous amounts of money that people made and then lost attracted an awful lot of attention. I think there’s a misconception that [the web] is about making money. It really is not and was not. The web never would have been interesting to commercial enterprises if millions of people had not created web pages in the early 1990s because (A) it was a cool thing to do and (B) because they were collaborating to create a collective good, a public good that served everyone, for no real commercial reason.

Conner:  That has a strong element of contribution in the public-good, too. How do you see this as it relates to learning and education?

Rheingold:  A public good is something that everyone contributes a little bit to and everybody draws from. We’ve lost a lot of that sense of a public good in this age of privatization and worship of the market.

You were talking about education. I think the rolling amnesia exists here too. People forget that the public education system in the United States, which works to an enormous degree but has some obvious things wrong with it, was a revolution in its time led by John Dewey. The idea that the American taxpayers should subsidize a public education system because it would make for better citizens and increase our prosperity was a radical idea. The public education system is a public good. We all contribute to it as taxpayers and presumably as a society we benefit.

Now, of course, we also have the complication in this country of being a pluralistic society: we have many different kinds of people with many different kinds of values. It’s important to separate the notion of education and learning from the school system which is also a political entity governed by and at the mercy of the communities in which it exists. That makes it a very difficult thing to change because in a pluralistic society we don’t all agree on values. We’re also seeing this reflected in the current political arguments about education.

At the same time, we have these technologies—the personal computers in the 1980s and the Internet in the 1990s—that can, if used properly, be tremendously successful vehicles for helping people learn. The future of education is a question not just about technology but also about the entire political infrastructure around public schooling.

I have written recently about my fears that there’s some magical thinking going on around bringing the Internet into the public schools. They had magical thinking in the 1980s when people thought that if we brought PCs into schools it would revolutionize education. Well it didn’t. The PCs weren’t powerful enough, the software wasn’t there, the teachers weren’t trained, and there was no support for when the computers broke. There was no dissemination of best practices so everybody reinvented the wheel and those PCs ended up as doorstops.

Now there’s a movement supported by all political parties that will bring the Internet into the schools with the belief it’s going to provide all future educational opportunities. Well yes and no.

Anyone who has run a network can tell you that the cost of the hardware and the connectivity is a fraction of the total cost of running the network. You need to be able to support it. If something goes wrong (which it will), someone needs to fix it and budget for that. You can’t expect teachers to understand how to use the new technology. They’re underpaid; they’re already spending all of their days and their nights working. Are we going to expect them to spend extra time for no pay to learn how to use this stuff? There’s no cookbook of best practices available to teachers. While many teachers have found wonderful ways to use the Internet in education, most teachers are going to have to start from scratch because they’re not aware of it.

Conner:  You’ve got that right!

Rheingold:  It’s not just a matter of bringing those pipes in and giving a free Internet account to the classroom. Without an infrastructure of training and support in an ongoing fashion, I think the system is going to fail.

There are also important social issues around acceptable use policies. Schools, parents, and students need to understand all the fairly complex ethical issues about pornography, intellectual property, cheating and other issues that arise when kids use the Internet, and then come up with an agreement which is again a political process. So, I think those tendencies exist to see technological fixes as being easy because people see the hardware as being something you can buy and plug in somewhere. Whereas it is the invisible part of the technology, all the social stuff I just described, that is vital to its success and is rarely considered.

Conner:  How do these issues influence adult education?

Rheingold:  Now adult learning is a different story.

Conner:  Let’s talk a little bit about that.

Rheingold:  First of all, most adults work during the day so they’re not going to be able to go to a schoolroom. Being able to access educational materials online is a great boon for us all. An enormous amount of knowledge is available to learn. With more broadband, cable modems, and DSL available, people can now have access to video as well as text material online.

What is missing is the essential social interaction that takes place in the classroom. There’s a saying that, “Education is an igniting, not a pouring.” Education isn’t just a matter of transferring a bunch of facts into someone’s head: rather, it’s a matter of getting that light bulb to go on and for them to understand things. And that almost always takes place in a social context between a teacher and a student or amongst students as a community.

That’s where the challenge is for distance learning, and I think one remedy for that is to bring the virtual community kind of social communication into distance learning. So, as well as making curricular materials and lectures and text available, it’s a matter of providing message boards and chats with trained online instructors and teachers who have learned the art of facilitating good conversation and discourse across the Internet. And that set of skills is different from delivering a lecture or writing a textbook. Just exposing people to the text material, without that social element, is not going to be sufficient.

Conner:  I agree with you wholeheartedly when we talk about the formula aspects of education. In reading the new afterward of Tools for Thought, you talk about the learning you did for the book by going online, talking with other people, and researching through the Internet. None of those involved curriculums or teachers. That was the natural thing you did in this age of online technology to help yourself learn.

Rheingold:  I’m one of those people motivated to go out and do that. Millions of people motivated like me have already taken advantage of the opportunities available out there. But I fear for the vast majority of folks, for whom the Internet is somewhat off-putting, it’s just another new technology they need to learn and there is a process required to socialize them to bring them in.

Conner:  I’m not sure there is anyone like you, but is that something you believe can be facilitated by virtual community, for instance?

Rheingold:  Yes. It’s not news, but the digital divide comes in here. My daughter is now a teenager; she grew up during the age of powerful personal computers and access to the web. I could afford to provide her access to that and I was knowledgeable enough to be able to show her how to do it. But what about all the parents who couldn’t afford that and don’t know enough to be helpful? If you can afford access to the technology and you can either afford access to someone who understands it or you understand it yourself, you have a tremendous advantage. It’s not just a matter of getting your hands on a computer—you need to know how to use it.

Conner:  What are some things that have improved in society as a result of the technology being available?

Rheingold:  Well certainly one of the largest changes is in the patient side of healthcare. Many people who have diseases or who are caretakers for people who have diseases now have support groups online not available before. If you are the only person in this small town who has a certain disease or you’re a caretaker for someone with Alzheimer’s and can’t get out of the house to go to a support group, you can get 24 hour a day emotional support.

There’s often a good question about whether the information they get is really good medical information and there needs to be some quality control on it, but certainly this has radically changed things from the days when the only person who gave you information about your disease was your doctor. To me that’s an obvious area.

My book The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier just came out in the new edition in MIT Press and for it, I wrote a new chapter. I wrote a lot about the people using the technology to try to revitalize grassroots democratic discourse and the enormous number of different organizations trying to (and to some degree succeeding) use the ability for people to connect over the Internet to try to help do what citizens of democratic societies do—understand the issues, debate the issues, and organize for action. This brings some kind of life back to democracy in the age of television, which has really taken a lot of citizen initiative away.

Conner:  As I pulled your books off my shelf, I found many yellowed dog-eared pages and was reminded you were quite ahead of your time. Many of the ideas and the things you put forth almost 20 years ago are now beginning to be understood. The fact you’re re-releasing several of these books must be hopeful.

Rheingold:  It was painful for me when I was younger to be ahead of my time and not have those books make the big splash they should have made. On the other hand, that’s my role and I’m happy to see that people have benefited from them. When I was interviewing managers from big telecommunication companies in the early 1990s about the Internet, they all dismissed it. So, it’s interesting to see that a lot of the things that I foresaw have come about. I, in part, do this to make a living, but in part, I do it because I see that as my contribution to society. I’m happy to see people beginning to think a little bit more about the future rather than just letting it happen to them.

Conner:  Do I dare ask what some of the things you’re thinking about now that we’ll understand a little bit better 20 years from now?

Rheingold:  Well I’m trying to think about what the new mobile communication technologies are going to mean to our lives. The prices of mobile phones are dropping so much that almost everyone’s going to have one in a few years, and now we have computer chips that are embedded in things. Those bar codes that they put on every package are going to be replaced by little computer chips with radio signals in them that communicate with the Internet. What’s that going to mean? How is that going to change our social relationships? I don’t really know, but I’m beginning to look at that now. How is this society, where computers are everywhere and everyone has mobile access to all of those computers, going to change? What’s that going to mean?

As the years have gone by since I started writing, I’ve become more interested in thinking critically about technology and not being a mindless booster of technology.

Conner:  Good.

Rheingold:  But in some of my recent books, my recent reissues, the new chapters have included some critical thinking about the technologies because certainly they are not an unmixed blessing. Technologies have a shadow side that changes our lives and is not beneficial—and those things are not really advertised by the people who have a vested interest in selling them to us.

Conner:  Absolutely. I worked in technology companies most of my career where I learned to spin everything. And on that note, thank you, Howard. You’re err... <begin spin> the most fabulous, thought-provoking person I have spoken with this year <end spin>. In other words, I appreciate your time. I look forward to learning from you for years to come.

Howard Rheingold is a writer, consultant, and all around hell-raiser. He’s author of The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier (reissued January 2000), Tools for Thought: The History and Future of Mind-Expanding Technology (reissued April 2000), They Have a Word for It: A Lighthearted Lexicon of Untranslatable Words & Phrases (reissued August 2000) and Virtual Reality (1993). Visit him at www.rheingold.com.

Marcia Conner is editor in chief of Learning in the New Economy e-Magazine (LiNE Zine) and CEO of Learnativity. Her work as a writer, consultant, and executive coach begin with her fanatical drive to help people excel in life by learning all of the time. Because of the strong link between learning and community, she is frequent conference speaker on how people learn in online and physical communities and was instrumental in creating PeopleSoft's eBusiness Community. Learn more about her work on community at http://www.learnativity.com/community.html. Tell her what and where you're learning! marcia@linezine.com.

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