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
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.
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
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 of humankind.
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
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 education.
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
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
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.
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
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,
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
Tell her what and where you're learning! firstname.lastname@example.org.
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