How Did Howard Rheingold Get So “Net Smart”: An Interview (Part One)

Howard Rheingold has been one of the smartest, most forward thinking, most provocative writers about digital culture for the past several decades. He’s someone who always makes me think. Even a short hall way chat with Howard at a conference can lead to transformative insights about how we live within a networked culture. I have been lucky to know him for more than two decades now, and I treasure every interaction I’ve ever had with the guy.

Howard embodies the transition which Fred Turner has documented between the counterculture of the 1960s and the cyberculture of today: he has a quirky personality which reminds me of Frank Zappa or Leon Redbone, and, as this interview suggests, he still carries with him some of the core values he first articulated working for the Whole Earth Catalog. So, it would be easy to see him as a voice from the past, but that would be a serious mistake, since he is still totally on top of the most recent developments in the field.

 

His most recent book, Net Smart: How to Thrive Online, is a major contribution to the growing body of literature around New Media Literacies. If you have not bought a copy yet, go online now and buy one. If you have not read your copy yet, stop right now and read it. Don’t worry, this blog interview will still be here when you get back.

Net Smart makes a strong case for what Rheingold sees as a set of core skills and competencies which we all need to acquire if we are going to make effective use of the communities and resources we encounter in our everyday lives online. He has talked to the experts, reviewed the literature, and thought through the implications of each skill, and he lays them out with his usual clarity and directness. Some in the past have accused Howard (not to mention myself) of being an uncritical utopianist. Here, you get a stronger sense of where the dust has settled for him as we have now lived for an extended period in relation to online platforms and practices. He certainly recognizes the risks and failures associated with the Web 2.0 era, but he also refuses to let them get in the way of what he sees as the more productive and meaningful ways of engaging with digital culture. He is a firm believer in the critical literacy skill he calls “crap detection.” Howard doesn’t take crap from anyone and he doesn’t serve up very much, if any, in this book.

I was lucky enough to be interviewed by Howard for the book, so I asked him if he would return the favor and share some of his thoughts with my readers.  Howard threw himself into this task with what he might call “mindfulness,” digging deep in response to every question, drawing insights not only from the current book but across a life time of thinking about virtual communities, augmented intelligence, and network culture.

 

Your progression from work on virtual communities to smart mobs to digital literacies says something about the evolution of digital culture over the past few decades. What has led you right now to focus so much on giving everyday people the skills they need to more meaningfully participate in the new media landscape?

I’m going to give a longer answer, so I’ll summarize the conclusion at the beginning: What people know about how to use media matters. The underlying technologies are important because of the way they amplify human cognitive and social capabilities, so know-how becomes crucial when a new tool like writing or the printing press or the internet enables people to think and communicate in new ways. The hyper-evolution of digital media over the past half century first depended on hardware, then software, then network infrastructure, then web services, and now the driving force shifts to the part of the system in people’s heads and between people. The digital divide now has to include the divide between those who know how to get and to verify information they need just in time and just in place, those who can cultivate and call on social networks, those who can persuade or educate from those who do not know how to apply the power a networked PC or smartphone makes available. The knowledge is not secret, but it hasn’t really been compiled and distributed. That’s why I wrote the book.
As you note, I’ve been writing about technologies and media that amplify human thought and communication for a long time. My first article on virtual communities was published in 1987. And my Reed undergraduate thesis in 1968 was about the intersection of electronic tools and human consciousness. So I’ve been thinking about the broader issues about human-technology interaction for most of my life. In terms of online social media, I was an enthusiastic participant since the BBS days of the early 1980s. Then I started writing about where online communication media came from and where it might be going.
When I published Tools for Thought in 1985, looking at the future of personal computing and human cognition, I was confronted by the questions “Is this new medium healthy or harmful? Is having a personal computer going to make people more or less humane? Are the digital tools that were emerging at the time any good for us as individuals, for our relationships, for our societies, for literate civilization?” These questions came from critics and academics, and it was one that I had been asking myself for some time.
The same questions came up with The Virtual Community in 1993 and Smart Mobs in 2002. I asked myself “what is the most possible outcome, positive or negative, of introducing networked personal computers to millions of people?” In pursuit of that question, I started looking into ways computer-mediated communication by entire populations might affect democracy. That inquiry led me to the literature about the history of the public sphere — that’s how I learn, mostly, by stumbling across things, then inquiring about them.
The health of the public sphere seemed to me in 1992 to represent the most important potential issue that could be raised by the widespread use of digital media. To oversimplify, I understood the public sphere to be a way of saying that democracy and governance of the people, by the people, and for the people is not just about voting for leaders. Unless enough people are literate enough — and free enough to express themselves — to understand and debate the issues that affect them, they aren’t going to be able to govern themselves. Informed discourse requires informed people, and that requires both educated citizens and a free flow of information.  In The Virtual Community I emphasized the quote by James Madison that is carved into marble at the Library of Congress: “A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
In Smart Mobs I was forced to learn a little about sociology to try to make sense of the ways large groups of people were beginning to behave collectively, now that billions of people have the web in their pockets. And in my research for these books, I grew fascinated with the archaeology of literacy –Elizabeth Eisenstein’s work on the impact of the printing press in Europe, the drama of Denise Schmandt-Besserat’s worldwide investigation of clay artifacts that led to her definitive history of the origin of writing, Marshall McLuhan’s insistence that printing presses change the way people see and deal with the world.
Working backward from McLuhan to Innis, Ong, and McLuhan’s colleague Robert K. Logan, I began seeing the broad picture of how new cultural mind tools enabled and initiated changes in the thinking of individuals and the functioning of societies. Working forward from the 1960s visions of JCR Licklider and Douglas Engelbart, it seemed to me that “augmenting human intellect,” as Engelbart framed it, was a historic repurposing of devices originally designed for ballistics calculations. Engelbart was well aware of the role of human learning and literacies in the future system he proposed, which he described as comprising “humans, using language, artifacts, methodology, and training.”
So now we have more than two billion people with Internet access, more than five billion mobile telephones. The mind-amplifying devices that Engelbart envisioned are in people’s pockets. The networks that link people and devices are global and heading toward ubiquitous. What does that mean? We’ve seen serious critics like Sherry Turkle and Nicholas Carr eloquently illuminating the darker sides and hidden costs of our fascination with social media. And we’ve seen an enormous amount of moral panic, based on very little or no empirical basis, about fears that using the web is making individuals and cultures shallow.
The answer to any question is available anywhere within a second or too — but it’s up to the inquirer to evaluate the validity of the answer. Virtual communities, smart mobs, collective intelligence, social production, enable millions of people to do things together in the physical world that they were never before able to do. Tech-savvy teenagers invent billion dollar industries and new ways of seeking information and socializing. Others organize revolutions. Know-how is at the core of all these new phenomena, whether they are used for good or ill. So digital literacies of attention, crap detection, participation, collaboration, and network smarts constitute a critical uncertainty. The answer to “is this stuff any good for us” is, I strongly believe: “It depends on what people know, and how many of them know it.” Just as the decades after Gutenberg’s invention saw the expansion of the literate population from thousands to millions, we’re seeing the diffusion of new literacies that are already changing the world more profoundly than print did in its first decades. 

When I use the term literacy, I mean both the learnable skill of coding and decoding in a new medium, but the social aspect as well — the interaction with the community of literates. Digital literacies are networked. In that regard, I see these skills as pointing inward to the individual and outward to the society. The individual who masters these skills will have a greater chance of personal, professional, political, social success. And the more individuals who master these skills, the more useful and trustworthy the digital commons becomes. Your work on participatory culture was particularly important to my thinking in this regard — it only makes sense that the person who thinks of herself as a creator of digital culture, even in a small way like tagging or commenting, has a stronger sense of agency as a citizen,  and a person who thinks of himself only as a consumer of culture created by others lacks some of that sense of agency.
What relationship exists between this book and the emerging field of digital media and learning?
In regard to how Net Smart relates to digital media and learning, I want to start by emphasizing the distinctions between learning digital literacies and using digital media in teaching and learning and between the novelty of social media versus the kinds of pedagogy it enables. 

First, digital literacies. I had to oversimplify to get it all in the book, but there are important digital literacies that I didn’t include, such as webmaking and coding. In order to spread around the lore I assembled in Net Smart, I’ve made available to anyone who wants to use it my syllabus based on the book, including many additional web-based resources. I don’t think educational institutions are moving anywhere near as fast as technology. And the moral panics have instilled fear of using the internet in schools. How many K-12 students learn how to search and evaluate information found online? I’d love to see it happen, see more teachers like the ones I interview for dmlcentral, so I’m not dismissing the uptake of digital literacies into the traditional curriculum. I do see the dissemination of this knowledge happening more rapidly online.

I do teach the literacies in Net Smart to the students in my virtual community/social media class at Stanford, but it’s in the context of a broader inquiry. The literacies are necessary to ask the larger questions about community, collective action, identity, the public sphere, etc. Students are introduced to forums as group voice, blogs as (networked) individual voice, mindmaps as lateral and visual thinking, social bookmarking as collective intelligence, wikis as collaborative platforms. Then they need to use their skills in these media to propose, organize, document, and present collaborative projects in groups of four. In the process, we consciously and deliberately approached our subject matter as a learning community in which classroom discussions expand online, students blog reflectively about what their learning shows them about the media they use, student co-teaching teams take turns co-teaching a classroom session with the professor.
The underlying methodology (Engelbart!) is enabled by the technology, but the methodology is what is important — giving students a means to continue discursive inquiry beyond the classroom, to tap into worldwide networks of knowledge and expertise, to talk among themselves instead of speaking when called upon by the professor. Making it easier for students to learn together and to take advantage of the infosphere beyond their classroom and their library is what makes for a pedagogy of co-learning. Much of what I do and what Cathy Davidson does in pursuit of co-learner can and should be done with index cards, whiteboards, and colored sticky notes. 

I’m also excited by what Mimi Ito calls “connected learning.” I was enthusiastic about  kind of online socializing that I came across that excited me in the 1980s because it was fun. For me, connected learning meant asking big questions about what this kind of fun meant, conversing about those questions with others online and face to face, and pursuing the literature that led me to the sociology of Marc Smith and Barry Wellman, the anthropology of Mimi Ito, the media theory of Henry Jenkins and Robert K. Logan. My enthusiasm plus my networks plus scholarly inquiry connected for me when I wrote Net Smart.
Putting into practice the knowledge I try to convey in Net Smart will make it easier for people to become involved in co-learning online. Pursuing the idea of co-learning far enough brought me to consider putting all the responsibility and power in the hands of the learner. Motivated co-learners in communities of gamers or fan communities teach each other sophisticated material all the time. What does a group of people need to know in order to use online media to co-learn about a particular topic? How would we find and qualify resources? Would we organize them as a syllabus or as a hackerspace? What learning activities, forms of assessment, synchronous and asynchronous media should they use? To that end, I organized the Peeragogy Project, a network of volunteers who are assembling a handbook for co-learners.

Howard’s Story:

I fell into the computer realm from the typewriter dimension in 1981, then plugged my computer into my telephone in 1983 and got sucked into the net. In earlier years, my interest in the powers of the human mind led to Higher Creativity (1984), written with Willis Harman, Talking Tech (1982) and The Cognitive Connection (1986) with Howard Levine, Excursions to the Far Side of the Mind: A Book of Memes (1988), Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming (1990), with Stephen LaBerge, and They Have A Word For It: A Lighthearted Lexicon of Untranslatable Words and Phrases.(1988).

I ventured further into the territory where minds meet technology through the subject of computers as mind-amplifiers and wrote Tools for Thought: The History and Future of Mind-Amplifiers (1984) [New edition from MIT Press, April 2000]. Next, Virtual Reality (1991) chronicled my odyssey in the world of artificial experience, from simulated battlefields in Hawaii to robotics laboratories in Tokyo, garage inventors in Great Britain, and simulation engineers in the south of France.

In 1985, I became involved in the WELL, a “computer conferencing” system. I started writing about life in my virtual community and ended up with a book about the cultural and political implications of a new communications medium, The Virtual Community(1993 [New edition,MIT Press, 2000]). I am credited with inventing the term “virtual community.” I had the privilege of serving as the editor of The Whole Earth review and editor in chief of The Millennium Whole Earth Catalog (1994). Here’s my introduction to the Catalog, my riff on Taming Technology and a selection of my own articles and reviews from both publications.In 1994, I was one of the principal architects and the first Executive Editor of HotWired. I quit after launch, because I wanted something more like a jam session than a magazine. In 1996, I founded and, with the help of a crew of 15, launched Electric Minds. Electric Minds was named one of the ten best web sites of 1996 by Time magazineand was acquired by Durand Communications in 1997. Since the late 1990s, I’ve cat-herded a consultancy for virtual community building.

My 2002 book, Smart Mobs, was acclaimed as a prescient forecast of the always-on era. In 2005, I taught a course at Stanford University on A Literacy of Cooperation, part of a long-term investigation of cooperation and collective action that I have undertaken in partnership with the Institute for the Future. The Cooperation Commons is the site of our ongoing investigation of cooperation and collective action. The TED talk I delivered about “Way New Collaboration” has been viewed more than 265,000 times. I have taught Participatory Media/Collective Action at UC Berkeley’s School of Information, Digital Journalism at Stanford and continue to teachVirtualCommunity/Social Media at Stanford University, was a visiting Professor at the Institute of Creative Technologies, De Montfort University in Leicester, UK. In 2008, I was a winner in MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning competition and used my award to work with a developer to create a free and open source social media classroom. I have aYouTube channel that covers a range of subjects. Most recently, I’ve been concentrating on learning and teaching 21st Century literacies. I’ve blogged about this subject for SFGatehave been interviewed, and have presented talks on the subject. I was invited to deliver the 2012 Regents’ Lecture at University of California, Berkeley. I also teach online courses through Rheingold U.

You can see my painted shoes, if you’d like.

 

Howard Rheingold / hlr@well.com

Comments

  1. Lina says:

    Reading the interview made me consider how precious all this extended research is, and how much we still have to learn about technology and the platfomrs we’re offered nowadays.
    The thing is, I completely agree on the topic about students and people who have access to a huge amount of information but just can’t process, evaluate and effectively benefit from it. As a teacher, I feel encouraged to continually study and search for ways to use technology inside the classroom and, even more urgent, help my students figure out how they can make a sense of it!

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