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
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.
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
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.
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
Is that were you came in contact with Doug Engelbart?
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.
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.
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.
That has a strong element of contribution in the public-good,
too. How do you see this as it relates to learning and education?
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
You’ve got that right!
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.
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.
How do these issues influence adult education?
Now adult learning is a different story.
Let’s talk a little bit about that.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’m not sure there is anyone like you, but is that something
you believe can be facilitated by virtual community, for instance?
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.
What are some things that have improved in society as
a result of the technology being available?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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! email@example.com.
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