Interview with Howard Rheingold

The Internet pioneer looks at the effect of disruptive technologies on society, culture and the entertainment industry

Howard Rheingold — online pioneer, author of the best-sellers Virtual Reality and The Virtual Community — has a new book, Smart Mobs. He spoke with J.D. Lasica by phone on Sept. 12, 2002, in advance of the PopTech conference in Camden, Maine.

howard rheingold

Howard Rheingold

You’ve called Smart Mobs your most important book. Why do you say so?

For a couple of reasons. The proximate reason is that I’ve written this at a time when a lot of people have some experience and knowledge of what happened to them and their industry and to the world as a result of the PC and the Internet. Maybe, because this is very early in what I think is the third big wave of technology-enabled change, we can apply some of what we’ve learned to shape rather than be the victims of circumstance.

Histories are important, and books that help people think about the wider issues are important. But books that are written at a time when people might still be able to do something about an issue have more importance.

Now, although in the broadest sense I’m talking about really systemic changes that have to do with the intersection of mobile communications and pervasive computing, and some of these other methodologies I’ve talked about like P2P and reputation systems, there’s also the matter that there’s a little-known but important political and legal conflict that is coming to a climax very soon and will determine the kind of role people play in regard to technology in the future. Will we be users who actively shape the medium, from Bill Gates and Jerry Yang in his dorm room to Tim Berners-Lee at CERN? The people who use those technologies were able to create innovations that changed the technologies, made them more useful to other people, created industries. Or, will we be consumers, the way that people who use television technology have been? We sit there and passively consume content that is packaged and sold to us by others and have little or no say about it.

Some of the issues around regulation of the Internet in the mobile age, regulation of the spectrum, the issues around digital rights management, control over how people are able to use content on their computers and other digital devices — these all have a real impact on what people will be able to do with their technologies in the future. And there is a real movement to cut off the ability of the users to innovate and return to the age when users were passive consumers.

The movement is largely being spearheaded by the large media and entertainment companies.

Yes. There are several different movements. There are the moves by the cable operators to monopolize broadband bandwidth. Remember, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was supposed to create competition that would benefit consumers in terms of lower prices and more products. Well, anyone who’s a cable subscriber can tell you that has not been the case. Less visibly is what has happened to Internet Service Providers. They’ve consolidated and there are only a couple left. We wouldn’t have the Internet, in fact, if it weren’t for the common carrier provisions that forced networks to carry traffic from other networks. Those are being turned back by the cable companies and telcos, which have petitioned the FCC successfully to no longer be required to carry traffic from competing networks. And we’re seeing the advent of networks that are going to discriminate about what they carry. Let’s say an AOL Time Warner installs routers that discriminate, they’ll be able to say, Oh, this is content from a competitor, we won’t carry it on our network, go find another network. That has the potential for fragmenting the Internet in a huge way.

“Any time you have a competition between something that requires a top-down infrastructure and something that can grow virally from lots of individuals, the viral will win every time.”
— Howard Rheingold

There is the spectrum regulation. The telcos have spent a lot of money buying chunks of spectrum from the government for the 3G networks of the future. At the same time, we have these new technologies coming along — ultra-wideband technologies, spread spectrum, software-defined radio — and what it means is that the spectrum regulators who now favor the large vested interests have some control over innovation. These are all based on the radio technologies of the 1920s and 1930s, even though now we have technologies that don’t need to be regulated that way.

And finally there’s the recording industry and motion picture industry, which have succeeded in getting electronic entertainment manufactures to go along with them, which tried to stop the VCR in their time, which are trying to gain control over innovation in computer technology in the future, because computer technology will be able to carry digital versions of the content they sell. And so all of these are leading to legislation and regulation that are very little known by people. You have to be both a technology geek and a policy wonk to keep up with it.

So what I hope to do in my book is to help awaken people to what’s happening.

Do you have your Smart Mobs elevator pitch down?

Not really yet. One thing I’ll say is we now know that when the microprocessor and the television screen merged, we got the PC, which was a new medium that was neither a microprocessor nor a television set but had properties of its own. And when you put the PC together with the telephone network, you got the Internet, which wasn’t just a PC on the telephone. So we’ve learned that when powerful technologies merge, new media become available, and people appropriate those media and make things from them.

We’re now seeing the Internet — which, as influential as it’s been, has been limited to the desktop — about to become untethered from the desktop and become part of the devices that we carry and eventually wear. And so I think that this intersection of mobile communications and the Internet is important enough, but at the same time, there are more and more devices in the environment and in objects that will be equipped with radio communications that our devices will be able to talk to. So I think that this intersection of global communication and pervasive computing has the potential to be much more powerful than either the PC or Internet revolutions alone.

A little long for an elevator pitch.

Except for the skyscraper variety. How did you come up with the title?

It’s really not about the technology, it’s about collective action. It’s about the way people are able to do things together in ways that they weren’t before because of these technologies. And I was really awakened to these potentials when I began reading things in the newspaper about the Philippines’ peaceful revolution against President Estrada, in which people mobilized to telephone text messages to assemble in the streets of Manila and bring down the government. That signaled to me that something new was happening. And I began looking at the strong implications of this new technology.

Ten years ago I wrote about the implications of many-to-many communications in terms of virtual communities, people being able to communicate and organize themselves around shared interests. Now we’re seeing people able to organize themselves for action in real time in the face-to-face world. So, smart mobs — that could be a peaceful revolution in the Philippines, but it also could be terrorists using the same tools. So the title has a bit of an edge to it because I don’t want to give the impression that this is a utopian technology.

What will you be discussing at PopTech? Would your writings about virtual communities be more in keeping with the conference’s theme of artificial worlds?

We have to look at our experience with artificial communities to understand that people will appropriate technologies for social purposes when it’s important to them. That was one of the central tenets of The Virtual Community, that the telephone companies did not invent the Internet. The driving forces of the Internet were social communications. I’m now saying that people are appropriating mobile communication, pervasive computing, and these will be somewhat different. And the main difference is that they will be mobile and transient. So I think artificial worlds — didn’t the alphabet create an artificial world? If you’re talking about the way in which people built and clumped and organized according to the symbolic communication technologies that are available, then you have to extend this notion of artificial worlds back to the alphabet and forward to mobile communities.

Are we continuing to see creative new uses of cyberspace communities evolve?

You’re already seeing it. [In Smart Mobs] I wrote about some folks I met in my travels. There’s a group in Helsinki, young folks who have a physical gathering place, a social club, and a virtual community. If you go to their office, which offers you a coffee machine, a kitchen, a copier , a telephone and wireless Internet access, your key has a little RF ID electronic chip in it that will let other people in your social network know that you’re in the building. So if you’re sitting at home and you’re part of the virtual community, then that name will pop up on the buddy list on your screen. Or you’ll get an SMS message. So we’re now seeing people in virtual communities getting together face to face and coordinating while they’re moving between places. We’re seeing an extension of virtual communities into the mobile space. And we’re also seeing groups of people who know each other being able to stay in touch while they’re moving around.

Are you following the WiFi phenomenon? This week I got a new Titanium Powerbook and I’m intrigued by the idea that not too far down the road we’ll be able to access the Internet from the neighborhood park bench.

I devote a whole chapter about that in the book. It’s a perfect example of this whole regulatory regime — the vested interests of existing corporations — vs. the innovative technology that grows from the grassroots. These 3G networks have spent $150 billion on spectrum and the telcos are failing because it’s hard to get these big top-down networks to work, and the telcos have lost a lot of their valuation and they’re servicing this huge debt. At the same time, a million and a half WiFi cards are sold every month, and people are beginning to piece together grassroots networks. Any time you have a competition between something that requires a top-down infrastructure and something that can grow virally from lots of individuals, the viral will win every time. The Web would never have been built by a central committee. It was built by a million geeks putting up Web sites.

What kind of mobile devices do you use?

I’m not that much of a road warrior. My main use of wireless technology is to sit on my lawn and do my work from there. I have a simple Apple Airport wireless network in my home, and a mobile phone when I travel. When I started writing the book I started traveling with a PDA, and found that I’m just not a PDA person. I’m not on the road enough for it to matter.

Do you think we’ll see a generational difference, with young people embracing mobile technologies at a much greater rate?

Clearly, yes. First of all, the people who drove the text messaging revolution in Scandinavia and in Asia were the youth. Subcultures have grown up among youth around the use of text-based messaging. We’re seeing a social networking around youth everywhere in which they teach each other how to use the features of mobile phones. More adults than youths are ignorant of how to do more than make a voice phone call with their mobile phones. So as in a previous generation, when e-mail came along when they were in college, and it’s something they brought with them when they moved into the business world, we’ll see this from the youths who started out becoming very adept at using mobile communications when they were teenagers. I think that may be one reason why text messaging never took off in the U.S. It was not pitched at 15-year-old girls, it was pitched at 35-year-old guys in business suits.

Tell us a little about Brainstorms.

I have to preface this by saying I’ve created many virtual communities and have been involved for a long time in the WELL and others. There are a variety of different ways you can govern virtual communities. I am all for and been the founder of freewheeling communities where anything goes, including Electric Minds. But I have found for my own purposes that, No. 1, to have a group of smart people to act as a sounding board and virtual think tank and help me find out things I wouldn’t know otherwise, and No. 2, to have a place to socialize and meet people and make friends, there are some limitations to these open, freewheeling networks. And that is that there are some people out there who have social problems and bring those social problems online and create flame wars and unpleasant social interactions.

I simply wanted to revert to the old BBS days, where it was like Joe’s Bar. If you go by Joe’s rules, you have a great time. If you break the rules, you get thrown out. So I created just a simple barrier to this community, which was, E-mail me and tell me why you’d make a valuable contribution to it. And I found that just the simple barrier kept out 99.99 percent of the vandals whom you’d find in Usenet or in AOL chat rooms or on IRC. So I’m all for places like Slashdot, where anything goes and you can use the reputation filter, but I created Brainstorms precisely to have something that would be more civil, to raise the bar for the level of discourse.

Incidentally, although I likened it to Joe’s Bar and I made the rules up, two things happened with Brainstorms. One, I got tired of being the cop, and second, the community took on a life of its own and now pretty much governs itself. It has a steady population of between 500 and 700 people with a large international contingent.

I’ve been interested since Electric Minds, seven or eight years ago, in the potential of Web-based asynchronous conferencing to build on the kind of discourse that thrived in text only. We can now make every post a little Web page, and that includes in-line graphics, and links, and formatted text, and that enables people to have discussions on a whole new level. It used to be in the old days you could contest something but you couldn’t post a link to the U.S. Census Bureau. But now that we have everything from Google to blogs to back up our assertions, we can have a more informed discourse.

JD Lasica
Written by JD Lasica
JD Lasica is an entrepreneur, author, journalist, photographer and blogger. | CONTACT