Howard Rheingold: Virtual Cartographer

September 24th, 2002 | Category: Interviews

Howard RheingoldMy friend and colleague Brandon Pierce let me run this interview in my book, Follow for Now.

Culture is driven by technology. Contemplate, for a moment, all of the devices that have changed your life in profound ways; or attempt a regress to your mental and physical state of being before the birth of the World Wide Web. Undoubtedly, you will notice your life is now inextricably linked to and tangled within technologies that pervade our daily experience (technophobes excluded). Our relationships, interests, and attitudes have all been cultivated by technological innovations made within our lifetime. Depending on the individual results of these developments, one can view the changes as mind-amplifying progress or a march toward a synthetic, controlled existence.

All of the above notwithstanding, Howard Rheingold is trying to give us a compass and a map, to help us navigate these times of speedy techno-social change and begin to understand where we’re headed. There are people in this world who live in the future. They envision, design, and play with unheard-of devices; they organize physical communities that reflect their virtual connectivity; they live in a world that integrates technology and reality in novel ways. Rheingold knows these people. Hunting out the territories where technology meets human relationships is his business.

Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution (Perseus Books, 2002) is Howard’s latest attempt to shine a flashlight into the future. This future is home to inhabitants that navigate daily life with devices that are literally remote controls for the physical world, devices that are electronically integrated into our everyday environment. Radio chips, reputation systems, wireless internet nodes, Global Positioning Systems, person-to-person texting, and wearable computers all contribute to a vision of commerce and communication at hyperspeed. How these developments will be handled, by government, corporations, and everyday people, is yet to be determined, and how these technologies will manifest themselves in society is yet to be clearly conceived.

In times where technological innovation is in overdrive, it is difficult to predict or prepare for the future. Governmental regulation cannot keep up with technological advances (you can’t tame an animal that you can’t catch). Smart Mobs wants to make us conscious of potential changes. Extrapolating trends into an uncertain future, Howard Rheingold is attempting to help shape it with socially conscious dialog.

Brandon Pierce: Smart Mobs deals with the convergence, or overlapping, of multiple technologies. You argue that this new synthesis will manifest “emergent properties” that will be profound and unpredictable. Can you articulate this idea for our readers (i.e., why is the future of pervasive media and technology so much more than merely obtaining wireless internet access in the park or receiving baseball scores on your mobile phone?)?

Howard Rheingold: We’ve seen, at least twice before in the past two or three decades, the way the convergence of information and communication technologies have created new media that have had profound, widespread, and largely unpredictable effects. The television screen and the microprocessor made possible the personal computer as we know it. The personal computer is something that amplifies the ability of people to communicate, create, and do their work. It’s not just a television screen and a microprocessor. It’s an entirely new medium. In fact, it was regarded as a toy in its early days. The effect it has had on the way we do business and in the pursuit of knowledge, in academia, science, and medicine, have all been profoundly changed by the personal computer in ways that were not predicted. With PCs merging with communication networks (originally the telephone network with modems, but then over to cables and wireless networks) you get something that’s not just a computer connected to a telephone; you get an emergent network, like the internet, which spawned the web and digital communication and all sorts of other phenomena which were not predicted beforehand. So we’ve learned something from this, but can we apply what we’ve learned to the future? We look at the internet, and it’s been limited to the desktop, whether in a home or an office, but now, as we move on to devices we can carry, today there’s mobile phones, maybe tomorrow there will be wearable computers and, for some, PDAs (personal digital assistants). That’s not going to be just carrying the internet around; it’s going to be an entirely different phenomenon.

BP: You have participated in the dialogs that have cultivated consciousness and management of the consequences of techno-social revolutions. Despite our limited knowledge of the complex dynamics of change, are there any unifying themes or concepts that underlie revolutions such as these?

HR: I think that it’s not just our blind inability to forecast. In fact, if you look at what drove the internet’s social communication, email was the killer app, along with newsgroups, mailing lists, chat rooms, instant messaging. These were just a huge driver of the internet. And with telephones, well, people like to communicate . . . socially. That’s obvious. And we’re seeing with the early use of the new media, the text messaging and SMS messaging (20 to 30 billion messages annually, worldwide), that social communications are something that people value. If you look at what people have done with these various forms of social communications, the kinds of communication that technology can afford, the telephone allowed one to communicate with someone far away, in real time. The internet makes it possible to communicate with people you’ve never met, but with whom you share some mutual interest. Mobile communication is used mostly by people who already know each other, to coordinate their activities in real time, and although that seems fairly simple, that can lead to profound changes, because the way people organize their activities is really what drives the evolution of civilization.

BP: In the U.S., wireless nodes are sprouting up quite quickly, accompanied by rapidly growing networks, while text messaging and G3 devices have yet to show their faces. Is there room in the U.S. market for both the G3 devices and wi-fi laptops to be successful?

HR: The fact that text messaging has not taken off in America — the way it has in Europe, Asia, Africa, and starting in South America — has a lot to do with the failure of the American operators to market it properly. Unlike Europe and Asia, there were many competing standards, so you could not send a text message (or could not until very recently) from your phone to your friend’s phone, if your friend had a different operator than yours. In Europe they had a standard, so you could send a message no matter who your friend’s operator was. Secondly, in places where it has taken off, texting is cheaper than making a voice call, and the receiver does not have to pay anything, only the sender. Again, the American operators did not market it that way. The third thing is that in most places, texting first took off among teenagers. Again, American operators did not begin by marketing it to teenagers. They’re changing that, but they started by marketing it to thirty-ish executive geeks. There may be other cultural reasons, but there’s no way of finding out what those are while these major marketing obstacles are in the way.

G3 is how the phone companies refer to third-generation cellular phones, which have music and video capabilities. The infrastructure for doing that, centrally, requires buying expensive portions of the spectrum and installing a top-down infrastructure that’s very expensive, and it takes a long time to install and to make it work. At the same time, other technologies are being utilized by armatures. People are using low-power devices to connect to the internet, and make small networks in their neighborhoods. These devices are selling at a million and a half per month. Telephone companies are laboring to build expensive infrastructures that might be too expensive for people to use, while people spontaneously build networks themselves, the way the internet was done. Wireless nodes are beginning to provide high-speed access to people in cites. The advantages are found in using the spectrum in ways that are not known or allowed.

BP: The evolution of virtual reality technology has not mapped directly onto the path that you plotted for it. Do you feel that any aspects of that particular phenomenon are evolutionary dead ends?

HR: I think clearly that VR has not taken off. I did say in my book that it would take 10 to 15 years for the processing power alone to be sufficient to provide an experience that could compete with what we’re used to on television. So we’re about 10 years into that period, and it’s getting there. But clearly other things have happened in the world that have been much more important, bigger, and unforeseen. Once again, nobody predicted the web when I wrote Virtual Reality (MIT Press) in 1990. So I think it remains to be seen whether the technology will be able to provide a compelling experience, but I think the compelling use of the internet has come along that has been more significant.

BP: Web theorists have suggested that the internet challenges many of our fundamental notions about time, space, self, etc. They exist differently in the virtual world. Web time has been called “sliceable” or “shapeable,” custom fit for each individual (or possibly containing a myriad of distractions). How does your “softening of time” theory relate to, change, or enhance these previous theories?

HR: There’s some indication that the use of mobile phones to coordinate activities has changed those properties. People don’t have set appointments; time has been “softened.” It’s not “I’ll meet you at 1:00 P.M. wherever,” it’s “I’ll send you a message once I get downtown this afternoon,” and then people negotiate actually when and where they’ll end up. Another change was pointed out by an urban planner by the name of Anthony Townsend. People are using their telephones and PDAs to get work done while in their car, walking down the street, or sitting in the park. These are times when they would not have been accomplishing tasks, business-related or social tasks, before. That means that people are doing more things than they were previously, and that speeds up the metabolism of the city. That might lead to good results for some people and bad for other people. We don’t really know, but it’s important to note that those changes are occurring.

BP: Some opponents of wireless networks and virtual communities argue that we will emerge from the “age of instant access” as isolationists with underdeveloped physical and social skills. They talk of cities whose denizens devalue public spaces and natural communication and are totally dependent upon and useless without their mobile devices. What is wrong with this mentality? Can these mind-expanding gizmos enhance human interactions or enhance public spaces?

HR: First of all, I don’t know that I would argue that, in general, that people are becoming more civil to one another. Look at interactions that people have in traffic, or listen to talk radio. I think people are as impolite to each other as they have always been, but they seem to be more in a hurry, in general. But does that have to with technology, or the automobile, or skyscrapers, or capitalism, or suburbia? I think it’s simplistic to try to nail it down to one cause. I think, however, that the problem is in generalizations. It’s clear that while for some people, the internet, like many other things, can be a way of distancing oneself from other people. It’s clear that, for many people, using online communication, just as their grandparents had used the telephone, is a way to connect with other people.

BP: Dialectics are central to your work and your treatment of them is usually quite balanced. For example, “The bottom-up, grassroots forces of innovation and community clash and with and dodge the punches of the top-down control of the corporate world.” Describe the sort of interaction that will need to take place or for these two opposing forces to work in some form of symbiosis.”

HR: There are a lot of different forces of conflict. There are existing industries and emerging industries. There are old business problems and new business problems. There are old ways of regulating public goods, and there are new ideas about regulating public goods. I think what I’m trying to drill here about virtual communication, using technology to communicate (as we did with the telephone, or the internet), is that people did not use it in ways that society had planned. So, we can see that telephone operators and cable operators . . . they have certain plans for what they would like to see with populations in the future, how they would like to see the populations of the future behave with regards to communication and technology. In general, I think we can see that Hollywood studios, the recording industry, electronics manufacturers, television industry would like to go back to the days of broadcasting, where people were consumers of content that was broadcast to them. The only choice you really had was changing the channel, never really creating content, unless you worked for one of the major studios. Now, when we look at the internet, we see that many people created it. Yet, the telephone companies created an infrastructure that was useful, computer manufactures created computers, but the internet was some “thing,” like a shopping center that was built by a bunch of contractors. But it emerged from the cooperative effort of everybody, acting in their own self-interest. So, the PC revolution consisted of users. Bill Gates was one. The internet consisted of users. In the future, the user could become consumer.

I think what we need is not one side or the other, but a balance between the large scale infrastructure that can only be built by major corporations or regulated by national government, and the bottom-up stuff. I think citizens should be allowed more leeway, and new technology should be given an opportunity by better serving the people that use it, rather than the companies that sell it.

BP: …And for another example, “The liberating, creative, and opportunistic dimensions of the ‘instant access’ age are shadowed by the Orwellian image of a ‘panopticon’ of psychological imprisonment and privacy invasion. What factors are important in driving this dichotomy toward a healthy, humane solution? Will the tradeoffs (privacy for convenience) be worth it?”

HR: This is a complex issue, but there is one simple way of looking at it: Who has control over information? The person who owns the information, such as whose medical histories it is, record of transactions it is . . . or others. People want to sell their products, and there could be a healthy market in this. All the merchants want to do is find people who are more likely to be their customers. Provided a method for doing this, that is what commercial interests want. People do not want to be bombarded with spam and junk mail. They see it as some form of identity theft, and they don’t want people to spy on them any more than the constitution allows. So I think the question of future technology is who has control of these. Is there an off switch where you can turn off the information being broadcast about you, and if so, is the default mode on or off?

It’s very difficult right now in California to pass legislation preventing banks from selling, not just your account information, but all the transactions that you make on your credit card (which is a big issue) to hundreds of thousands of other institutions. The California legislature has failed twice in the past two years to pass a bill about that because the banks spend a lot of money on lobbying. They spend a lot of money on politicians who then owe them something. So, although individuals say they care about privacy, the political process is tilted in favor of institutions that profit from having control of information.

BP: Tell us about any new projects you have in the works.

In a couple of weeks I’m going to launch the website, a resource center of all the resources that I did put in my bibliography, and a community blog of new developments related to the chapters in the book.

Further Posting: