Howard Rheingold Interview by Paul DiPerna | Blau Exchange
Howard Rheingold Interview
moderated by Paul DiPerna
Howard.. What led you to the Tools for Thought project, and 1985
themes I was writing articles about what people at Xerox PARC were doing.
interviews index Time Magazine made the PC their "person of the year" and their
article and the popular culture seemed focus on Apple and Microsoft
as the inventors of the PC, but I knew there was more to it than that.
subscribe to email updates From there, I met Bob Taylor, who turned
me onto Engelbart, and the story unfolded. I
talked to Licklider, too. But I got grandiose
and decided that Boole, Babbage, Lovelace,
RSS for interviews
Wiener, and especially John von Neumann
were also important but unknown. It seemed
like one story arc to me.
Paul's bio and projects Rheingold's Bio
I got to Xerox PARC in the first place
because I read Alan Kay's 1977 Scientific
American article on "Microelectronics and the Personal Computer",
and decided from that article that PARC was a cool, futuristic place to
comments policy be. However I was no technologist. I was interested in the PC as a
And I got my first PC not because I had any expertise or particular
interest in the technology, but because of word processing.
I have been a freelancer since I was 23. So I had more than a
decade of typewriters by the time I wrote TFT.
Do you see other PARC-like organizations today that are similarly
The most powerful computer at PARC when I was there was far
punier than the ones people have on their desktops, laptops, and even
telephones today -- the tools for creating all kinds of things from
communities to markets to movements are in the hands of hundreds
of millions of people. The innovation is coming from dorm rooms, not
R&D cities now.
So today we have many more super-empowered individuals and
informally connected groups?
Yes, that's what my next two books were about. ;)
(The Virtual Community and Smart Mobs)
This actually leads to my next question..
For those college or graduate students who may read this
transcript, and interested in utilizing social technologies (like the
Internet and mobiles) to pursue social entrepreneurial projectsï¿½
what advice do you give them?
It's more important to understand the social, psychological,
economic dimensions than to just know how the tools are made and
economic dimensions than to just know how the tools are made and
how to operate them.
You have to read the old-timers like Goffman, Benedict Anderson,
Elinor Ostrom, as well as look at what people like Peter Kollock, Marc
Smith, Mimi Ito, danah boyd and others are doing today.
Several ethnographers in that bunch of names, and a couple of
Because what is happening now has to do with not only the
expanded capabilities of individuals, but the new forms of collective
action that people will inevitably concoct with the technological
platforms and the media that are built on those platforms. The action
is on multiple levels simultaneously, just as it is in biology. Now, it's the
individual technology, the technical network, the application layer, the
psychological, social, economic layers. In biology, it was the cellular,
organ, organism, ecosystem layering.
In terms of collective action.. With the boom of digital and mobile
media the last 5+ years, do you see a new kind of civic engagement
on the horizon?
I am tracking Unity08 for example.. and the initiative seems to be
driven toward building a new form of online democratic process and
institutions. (e.g. a web-based presidential nomination convention -
and "Unity Ticket")
I see a new kind of civic engagement being TRIED, and I see the
development of the technologies to do it, but again, the critical
uncertainty is social, not technological: will a critical mass of citizens
use the opportunity to organize collective action? We saw the fantastic
emergent collective response to Katrina, for example -- Katrina
Peoplefinder is only one example. And political organizing can't ignore
either the online or mobile media. And Sunlight Foundation -- so many
Will they achieve a critical mass?
That's partially a matter of literacy -- will enough people know how
to us e the media and channels available to them to influence the
system? Or is it just a pretty story? We should always be cautious
about enthusiasm based on the properties of the technology -- see
Benkler's history of radio.
That makes sense. Reaching always be
critical mass is key. The sense I cautious about
have right now, in terms of
diffusing innovations (also see
Everett Rogers), innovators and
early adopters are still the folks
primarily using digital/mobile media... I'm thinking along the social
side.. do you think there could soon be a generational effect as far as
adopting digital media?
I guess what I mean is that in about 5-10 years, people who were
literally socialized by way of their cell phones and the Internet will
achieve greater cohort influence (such as consumer power) as they
graduate from college and graduate school, enter the workforce, and
make a living. Barriers to convince them on the ways to "use" new
media should be lower, I think, and adoption may scale upward
Certainly, blogs have broken into the early part of the mainstream..
And MySpace. And YouTube. All of these enterprises succeed
because of their social dimension -- the potential to "go viral".
It won't matter how savvy the digital natives are in the next decade
if they and others don't stop Comcast, ATT, Microsoft, the RIAA and
the MPAA and their friends in Congress from putting locks on
innovation. They can send their protesting text messages all they
want, but if tomorrow's would-be innovators are communicating via a
medium that resembles cable television more than the Internet, the
notion that they could create anything significant and new in the
political, economic dimensions will be a quaint ancient folly -- like
"flower power" looks today.
Ok. Thanks for taking time out to do this..
You are welcome.
January 30, 2007
Thanks for the interview. I think if we can harness these
ideas and point people toward goals they care about, we'll
find that groups of people grow in different places, and then
connect with each other through networked events and
linked web sites. As we add more celebrities to the mix, this
will increase the number of people who participate.
I'm not sure critical mass will really be the important
question. Rather, I think sustaining interest over a period of
months and years, or until a problem is solved, will be the
real challenge to be overcome.
Dan Bassill | January 31, 2007 at 9:40 PM
home | interviews index | Join the email list | RSS for interviews | Paul's email
Blau Exchange, est. 2006 | Blau Exchange, All Rights Reserved 2006-2008
site design by gralmy