Howard Rheingold may well have been the first pioneer to fall down into the chasm of cyberspace and the write about it. As Editor of the Whole Earth Review, following in the footsteps of founder Stewart Brand, he has consistently been on the bleeding edge of both righteous living for a Whole Earth, and the bleeding edge of technology and the human mind. Below are links to his books, the first of which, Tools for Thinking, catalyzed deep soul-searching within the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) which at the time (1986) had nothing to offer such as Howard envisioned. He was, with John Perry Barlow, one of the two speakers at OSS '92 who challenged virtually every aspect of the secret intelligence paradigm.
At the very end of the book, the author quotes James Madison as carved into the marble of the Library of Congress: “…a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” And there it is–Howard Rheingold has documented the next level of the Internet, in which kids typing 60 words a minute with one thumb, “swarms” of people converging on a geospatial node guided only by their cell phones; virtual “CIAs” coming together overnight to put together massive (and accurate) analysis with which to take down a corporate or government position that is fradulent–this is the future and it is bright.As I go back through the book picking out highlights, a few of the following serve to capture the deep rich story being told by this book–breakthroughs coming from associations of amateurs rather than industry leaders; computer-mediated trust brokers–collective action driven by reputation; detailed minute-by-minute information about behaviors of entire populations (or any segment thereof); texting as kid privacy from adult hearing; the end of the telephone number as relevant information; the marriage of geospatial and lifestyle/preference information to guide on the street behavior; the perennial problem of “free riders” and how groups can constrain them; distributed processing versus centralized corporate lawyering; locations with virtual information; shirt labels with their transportation as well as cleaning history (and videos of the sex partners?)–this is just mind-boggling.
Finally, the author deserves major credit for putting all this techno-marvel stuff into a deep sociological and cultural context. He carefully considers the major issues of privacy, control, social responsibility, and group behavior. He ends on very positive notes, but also notes that time is running out–we have to understand where all this is going, and begin to change how we invest and how we design everything from our clothing to our cities to our governments.
This is an affirming book–the people that pay taxes can still look forward to the day when they might take back control of their government and redirect benefits away from special interests and back toward the commonwealth. Smart mobs, indeed.
Howard Rheingold, former Editor of the Whole Earth Review and one of the pure-gold original thinkers in the Stewart Brand and Kevin Kelly circle, lays down a serious challange to both decisionmakers and software producers that has yet to be fully understood. Originally published in 1985, this book was a “must read” at the highest levels of advanced information processing circles then, but sadly its brilliant and coherent message has yet to take hold–largely because bureaucratic budgets and office politics are major obstacles to implementing new models where the focus is on empowering the employee rather than crunching financial numbers.
This book is a foundation reading for understanding why the software Bill Gates produces (and the Application Program Interfaces he persists in concealing) will never achieve the objectives that Howard and others believe are within our grasp–a desktop toolkit that not only produces multi-media documents without crashing ten times a day, but one that includes modeling & simulation, structured argument analysis, interactive search and retrieval of the deep web as well as commercial online systems, and geospatially-based heterogeneous data set visualization–and more–the desktop toolkit that emerges logically from Howard's vision must include easy clustering and linking of related data across sets, statistical analysis to reveal anomalies and identify trends in data across time, space, and topic, and a range of data conversion, machine language translation, analog video management, and automated data extraction from text and images. How hard can this be? VERY HARD. Why? Because no one is willing to create a railway guage standard in cyberspace that legally mandates the transparency and stability of Application Program Interfaces (API). Rheingold gets it, Gates does not. What a waste!
Everyone seems to miss what I think is the most important the point of Howard's book. First published in 1993 and now in the expanded edition, the bottom line on this book is that the Internet has finally made it possible for individuals to own the fruits of their own labor–the power has shifted from the industrial age aggregators of labor, capital, and hard resources to the individual knowledge workers. The virtual community is the social manifestation of this new access to one another, but the real revolution is manifested in the freedom that cyberspace makes possible–as John Perry Barlow has said, the Internet interprets censorship (including corporate attempts to “own” employee knowledge) as an outage, and *routes around it*. Not only are communities possible, but so also are short-term aggregations of interest, remote bartering, on the fly hiring of world-class experts at a fraction of their “physical presence price”. If Howard's first big book, Tools for Thought, was the window on what is possible at the desktop, this book is the window on what is possible in cyberspace, transcending physical, legal, cultural, and financial barriers. This is not quite the watershed that The Communist Manifesto was, but in many ways this book foreshadowed all of the netgain, infinite wealth, and other electronic frontier books coming out of the fevered brains around Boston–a guy in Mill Valley wearing hand-painted cowboy boots was there long before those carpetbaggers (smile).
Sacred and Scary Reflections on Neo-Biologicial Civilization,
December 29, 2000
First published in 1991, this is a gem that should be one of the first readings of anyone contemplated the sacred and the scary aspects of how humans, machines, and software are being changed by emerging information technologies. While there is a lot of focus on “cool tools” and all the paraphenalia of “virtual reality” qua artificial sensation and perception, the rock bottom foundation of this book can be found in Howard reflections on what it all means for the transformation of humans, business, and society in general.