Minister With Virtual Portfolio

An interview with Howard Rheingold

Janury 26, 1994

By Scott Rosenberg

When Howard Rheingold sends out electronic mail these days, which he does a lot, he sometimes tacks on an extra line of type at the end, like a letterhead.

"What it is," the message reads, "is up to us."

A digital fortune-cookie riddle? Perhaps a cyber-koan? Only if you read Rheingold's new book - "The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier" - can you be reasonably sure what that "it" refers to.

What's up to us, Rheingold wants us to know, is the shape, design and capabilities of the so-called information highway - the communications networks into which our telephones, televisions and computers are rapidly mutating.

In particular, what's up to us is whether the network turns out to be an open public space, like a town square or a civic forum, or a commercial enclosure, like a mall. To analogize, and doubtless oversimplify, the question is whether the network emerges as something like a souped-up telephone that we can all communicate with (known as the "many-to-many" model) or something like a jazzed-up cable TV ("one-to-many") that provides us with more choices but not more power.

And Rheingold emphasizes that it's up to us right now - during a brief window of opportunity, as the government bargains with the telephone companies, cable TV networks and other corporations to lay down new rules for the new roads.

Like everyone else who writes about the subject, Rheingold says he has mixed feelings about the "information highway" image. Still, he says, "That metaphor has become so pervasive that, like it or not, it's the way people are going to talk about this."

Rheingold recently started a discussion on the WELL, the influential Sausalito-based computer conferencing system that is his virtual community of choice, entitled "The Information Highway: Uses and Abuses of the Metaphor." He wrote: "The metaphor is ripe for satirizing. It is also a battleground for a war of images: Is this infrastructure a dumb conduit for delivering commodities (the information highway) or a network/platform for people to communicate with one another and create new businesses and communities (the virtual community)?" The message elicited nearly 300 thoughtful, disputatious, occasionally flippant comments in less than a month from other WELL members. Which is precisely the sort of thing Rheingold argues you can do more easily if you're conversing in a community than when you're cruising down a highway.

"With a highway, you think of this empty road made of asphalt that gets you somewhere. Nobody in their right mind actually stops on the highway. Nobody lives on the highway. We're not even talking about the destinations."

Rheingold, who edits the Whole Earth Review and has recently begun work on the forthcoming Millennium Whole Earth Catalog, makes visiting those destinations his business in "The Virtual Community." The book introduces the WELL, which was founded in 1985 as a Whole Earth spin-off (the name is short for "Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link"). It also explores the vast, anarchic reaches of the Internet, the ephemeral electronic conversation of Internet Relay Chat, the digital grassroots of the computer bulletin-board world, the world of MUDs and MOOs (alternate dimensions existing only in computer text that users can enter under fictional personas), public-interest networking for the Santa Monica homeless and the isolated hamlets of Montana, and new developments in Europe and Japan.

Rheingold identifies a sort of social imperative in the history of what he calls computer-mediated communication. From Prodigy to France's public Minitel system, companies and institutions think they're entering the business of selling fast access to data, "broadcasting information on screens to large populations"; but their customers turn out to be far more interested in using the network to rub virtual elbows, shmooze, bicker and flirt.

It's a process that Rheingold knows first-hand: "My experience of the virtual community comes from my heart and my gut rather than my head." He describes, for instance, finding camaraderie - as well as quick medical information and advice - among the other members of the WELL's conference on parenting after he became a father.

In the book, Rheingold says he spends an average of two hours a day participating in the sequential discussions that make up the traffic on the WELL. In person, he admits with just the slightest sheepishness that the figure's an understatement: "It's probably a minimum of two hours."

When the WELL was recently bought out by businessman Bruce Katz from the Point Foundation, Whole Earth's parent organization, Katz persuaded Rheingold to join the WELL board as a kind of guarantee of the new owner's good faith. "I took a certain risk by trusting Bruce," Rheingold says, "and he's taking a risk that I could resign in a very public, nasty manner." But Rheingold is confident for now - "Katz, like me, is another guy from the '60s who wants to do social change and senses a way here of enabling all of the do-gooders of the world to do good better" - and adds that Katz's investment will allow the WELL, which now has over 8000 members, to manage its growth better.

What you learn about Rheingold from reading him, in print or on line, is that he is painstakingly scrupulous about balancing pros and cons - a style that's effective yet uncommon in the freewheeling debate that prevails on the nets, where any and every point of view can, and will, be heard from eventually.

What you learn by meeting Rheingold in person is that his wiry eyebrows quiver at attention as he talks, and his frequent, judicious nods add gravity to his words - a weight that is neatly counterbalanced, in turn, by the levity of his rainbow-colored shirt and boots.

You could trust this man to sell you a used car, but he'd probably lose your business - he'd feel compelled to tell you about every rumble and dent.

Fortunately, he isn't trying to sell anything (except, presumably, books). And on the crowded turf of digital prognostication, his blend of enthusiasm tempered with inquisitive caution distinguishes him from both starry-eyed techno-hucksters and atavistic technophobes.

On the one hand, Rheingold says, the networks provide savvy users with "a much richer choice of sources of information" - everything from expert advice to university and government libraries to the now-celebrated eyewitness reports over the Internet from Chinese students at Tienanmen Square. The global net provides new avenues to evade censors, too: "The news management triumph of the Gulf War was: no pictures of dead people, only pictures of videogames." (That suggests one litmus test for gauging how open the networks of the future are going to be: Will they, unlike today's TV, show us the carnage during the next instant war?) But computer-mediated communication has its drawbacks, too. It's difficult to form a true community without meeting face-to-face at least some of the time. Conversation on the net is stripped of social markers like facial expressions and tones of voice, and "flamewars" - insult-ridden verbal assaults - are common. "There's very little quality-control feedback on the net. It's easy to put information out, hard to get it back. It's easy to slander, harder to retract. How can you retract dropping a drop of dye into a glass of water? You don't get those molecules back. The medium diffuses things."

"The Virtual Community" began as a cultural study but evolved into a more political work. "The politics have to do with the concentration of the power to determine what people see and hear. One question is whether citizens will be able to communicate with each other, or solely through the mediation of whoever controls the channel. Another question is whether this is going to be a platform for innovation - so that some kid or some grandma in their bedroom or their kitchen will create the next Apple or Microsoft on the net."

"The net is truly a new machine, and we don't know what the machine is really for. So the question is, will the people who determine that be the R&D lab for TCI - or grandma? And the regulatory regime that's established within the next two years is going to determine a lot of what's possible in the future."

"I use the example of the telephone company in the 1920s versus the personal computer industry in the 1970s. You can capture your audience and therefore have a monopoly, and make a lot of money. Or you can create a platform that other people can build on - and they will become rich, and they will make you rich, by giving other people a reason to use it.

"Who knows what it is? Maybe you're a fisherman, and you've got good information that you could transmit wireless from your boat - and make more money knowing where the fish are than bringing them in. Maybe it's knowing where you get a clutch for a '53 Hudson. There are all kinds of things that people who don't think of themselves as information people don't realize could be opportunities to make money. But they can't if you've got to pay a $100,000 licensing fee to be an information provider - or if the owners can regulate the content to bar something that's competing with something they're planning to do."

Rheingold finds hope in Vice President Gore's statement at the "Superhighway Summit" earlier this month that TCI and Bell Atlantic had committed themselves to giving every library, school and hospital access to the new network. But he goes further.

"I would like to see, from the enormous profits that the TCIs and the Time Warners are going to make, some small portion set aside to pay for public-sector education. The proper role of government is in that regulation. Can't we have some kind of national discussion and debate about this which will inform us so that (TCI chairman) John Malone can do the right thing for the taxpayers, and the FCC can force him and the other players to make some contribution to the public interest? I'm not very well versed in the economics of this, but the people I've talked to say that the amount of money needed to upgrade public facilities and provide public access to this is trivial compared to what they are going to make off it.

"The only way a large corporation makes decisions in the public interest is if their feet are held to the fire by the regulators. And the only way that happens is if there is sufficient pressure from the public. There's no pressure if there's no understanding. And that's why the war of images is so important - the highway versus the community."

That, in other words, is how it's up to us.

"We have ample evidence," Rheingold says, "that if everyone changes their mind about something overnight, the world changes in an amazing way."

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