Technology 101: What Do We Need To Know About The Future We're Creating?

By Howard Rheingold

(last revision: 5/4/98)

1: Where I'm Coming From
2: Growing up Futurian
3: Seduction By Mind Amplifier
5: From Thinking Tools to Thinking About Toolsr

4: Jumping Into the Virtual World

Connecting my modem to my telephone was another epiphany that actually preceded my seduction by Macintosh. I was familiar with local area networks and servers from the Alto and Ethernet I had used at PARC, but I was not granted an ARPAnet account. I had stored and retrieved and printed documents on a network, but I had never used the computer as a communication device. As soon as I discovered that my mind-amplifier could plug into other minds via a kind of groupmind amplifier, I spent the next fifteen years too enthralled to pay attention to other effects the technology was having on me and the rest of the world.

It was an easy leap from the experience of my own empowerment to the conclusion, heartily supported by Engelbart, Licklider, Kay, and the others, that personal computers and networks were empowering technologies. The answer to the question of whether these tools really empower individuals is "yes and no." There's no question that they added to my ability to think, communicate, and make a living. When something makes you happier and more prosperous, you aren't strongly motivated to think critically about it.

In 1983 I bought a 300/1200 baud modem for $500 in order to ship text back and forth with a collaborator. I was helping write a book with a partner who worked at night. He insisted that I buy a modem and get an MCI mail account. I remember the exact moment of that epiphany. It came when I got to my computer, the first morning after activating my account, to see words, words, words, streaming across the screen and onto my hard disk. At 1200 baud, it's possible to read it as it goes by. It didn't take me long to start exploring BBSs and online services such as The Source. I wrote about those experiences in the last chapter of Tools for Thought. In 1985, I joined the WELL, and I've probably spent an average of three hours a day online ever since.

After more than a decade alone in my room, staring at a blank page in my typewriter (or, more recently, a blank file on a computer monitor), I was ripe for online communication. When I started out to be a writer, it hadn't occurred to me that I was sentencing myself to a life term in solitary confinement. My wife worked at her own jobs, outside the house. All the other people my age were going to offices, campuses, factories, or fields where they would see other humans (whether they liked them or not), hear the sound of other voices, feel somehow connected to others.

Like many inhabitants of modern civilization, my wife and I moved around the USA -- Portland, Oregon, Boston, and New York -- before settling in the San Francisco Bay Area in the early 1970s. After we moved to San Francisco, we changed houses and neighbors a half dozen times in the first ten years we were there. We got to know a few neighbors, and continued to see one or two of them after moving from the old neighborhood. A few friends from college were in the area. We did not belong to any organized religion. Like many others, we found that our mobility, the seclusion necessitated by my profession, and the social atomization of urban life left us with a dearth of social and intellectual affiliations.

Falling into cyberspace was easy for me. I was sitting there in front of the computer for hours a day, anyway. It wasn't long before the modem had a dedicated telephone line. All I had to do was type a few keystrokes, and I was connected other people who were talking about everything under the sun. At first, I only did it in the evenings. I was fascinated by BBS culture. I still know two people I first met in 1984 via the Skateboard BBS. There were only about a dozen of us who regularly talked about life, art, jokes, current events, via a BBS that ran off a PC in somebody's bedroom. But it only took weeks before we started meeting regularly at a Chinese restaurant. BBS culture, however, is like a vast collection of small towns. No single online discussion offers much social or intellectual diversity. The Source was a much larger national service (later assimilated by CompuServe), but it cost as much as $15/hour during prime time, and playing around with ideas online is no fun with the meter ticking.

My social isolation, fascination and dissatisfaction with BBSs, inability to pay premium rates, set me up for instant seduction when the Whole Earth Lectronic Link opened in 1985, offering a kind of freewheeling online salon of techies, writers, activists, deadheads, and other early adopters of technology culture -- at $2/hr. Where did the last thirteen years go? I had no idea at the time that reading, typing, thinking about, laughing at, crying over, fretting over WELL postings would involve a significant amount, if not a majority, of my waking hours for more than a decade to come. I ended up travelling around the world to research my book, The Virtual Community, and travelling around it a half dozen more times after it was published in 1993. Years of talking with people everywhere about this notion of virtual communities -- an idea, I discovered, that many people find disturbing -- pushed me to ask of myself some of the questions critics kept asking me in Tokyo and Sidney, Amsterdam and Vancouver, London and Stockholm.

The first such question I have been asked many times in many places is whether such groups are "really" communities. My answer is: "No, virtual communities are not "really" communities, but it is important to extend the question." The same can be said of most apartment buildings, many neighborhoods, and all large cities.

The question of what to do about increasing human alienation within the increasingly larger-and-faster-than-human environment is a serious one. People who communicate via computer networks definitely should be instructed about the danger of mistaking messages on computer screens for fully authentic human relationships. And we definitely need to be skeptical of claims that online discourse can effectively substitute for or revitalize the public sphere that was enclosed and fragmented by mass-media technology and public relations techniques.

Two important qualifications must be considered before critiqueing the phenomenon of virtual communities: First, for some people, online communication is a lifeline, a way of improving their quality of life, and one should think hard and long before appointing oneself the arbiter of whether it is healthy for an Alzheimer's caregiver, an AIDS patient, a quadriplegic, a bright student in a remote location, to spend time online. If oneีs critique does not take these people into account, there is the danger of doing real damage to the lives of people who might otherwise have no social life at all.

The second thing to keep in mind when critiquing virtual communities is that alienation is real and important, but it did not begin with computers, nor should our critique end there. I would be the first to stipulate that in many cases, the availability of online social interaction can exacerbate the isolation and dehumanization of people who live in the modern world. If we are going to look unblinkingly at whether it is humane to support a world where more and more people spend more of our time driving single-passenger, petroleum-fueled vehicles through concrete landscapes to our cubicles inside big ugly buildings, where we spend our time staring at computer screens, manipulating symbols, and exercising our fingers -- we need to look closely at the room, the building, the urban landscape, the entire civilization that computer screen is situated within, as well as questioning whether life in front of a screen is healthy.

The most important critiques of virtual communities are those which attack the validity of claims that many-to-many communication media have the potential for being a democratizing tool. Now that every desktop is potentially a printing press, a broadcasting station, a place of assembly, has important decentralization of the power to inform, witness, influence, and persuade taken place? Certainly, for the Serbian opposition who put their radio station B92 on the Net when the government shut down their broadcasts, and for the Zapatistas who effectively disseminated news and influenced world opinion via the Net, this claim is not wholly false. Minnesota's "E-democracy" project, California Voter Foundation and Mother Jones' online databases linking Congressional votes with personal stock transactions of Congressional representatives (and many other political databases) are excellent experiments. But whether computer bulletin boards, mailing lists, and email can effectively counter the power of the global mass-media disinfotainment complex is a pragmatic question to ask.

I believe it is too early for a definitive answer. The most intelligent critiques of this concept are Fernbach and Thompson's Abort, Retry, Failure?" and Langdon Winner's essay, "Mythinformation," reprinted in his book, The Whale and the Reactor.

We should not close the books on the debate about the mental or social health of virtual communities. And neither should we stop at a shallow level of analysis. It's time to look at today's questions about digital life as instances of the same questions Jacques Ellul and Lewis Mumford asked about technological civilization half a century ago, and which Marx, Weber, and Veblen dealt with even earlier.

5: From Thinking Tools to Thinking About Tools

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