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

By Howard Rheingold

(last revision: 5/5/98)

1: Where I'm Coming From
2: Growing up Futurian
3: Seduction By Mind Amplifier
4: Jumping into the Virtual World

5: From Thinking Tools to Thinking About Tools

It took years for me to understand the outlines of the problem, and see that the problems of technology in which I began to suspect I shared complicity were inseparable from the powers granted me by my mastery of personal computers and online media. I still use and appreciate the same tools, but I was definitely more intoxicated back then with the sheer pace of change. A new world was emerging and it was fun, empowering, enriching, and, most of all, cool.

When I wasn't hanging out online or writing about hanging out online, I maintained a professional interest in the evolution of computer technology. In 1990, I travelled from MIT and NASA to laboratories in Tokyo, London, and Grenoble, in order to research a book about a new computer technology that was threatening to create totally artificial worlds for people to pretend to inhabit: virtual reality. First, the computer came out of nowhere to dominate our lives. It looked like the next step might be for people to live inside the computer. In the process of writing my book, Virtual Reality, and in my reading of the book's reviews, I began to wonder whether the ultimate direction of personal computer development would be really be the empowering mind amplification I had hoped for, or whether it might instead devolve into hypnotic disinfotainment. When someone can make a business out of selling everyone in the world a tool for telling them what else to buy next, do other potential applications for any new medium have a chance to compete?

At the time I was writing about virtual reality, I received an invitation from Kevin Kelly, who is now the executive editor of Wired magazine, but was at that time the editor of Whole Earth Review. I took over the job of editor of Whole Earth Review when Kelly took off to write his book, Out of Control. Finding myself at the vortex of the Whole Earth community certainly accelerated my critical thinking about technology. And I was immersed in an atmosphere that deliberately widened its focus from just the details of digital technology to include the biosphere, and technologies of agriculture, energy, transportation, medicine, urban planning.

Stewart Brand, the founder of the magazine, and the Whole Earth Catalog the counterculture best-seller that the magazine descended from, was a biologist who shared my fascination with mind amplifiers. Indeed, when Doug Engelbart produced his famous 1968 demonstration of the future of computer technology, his audio-visual coordinator was Stewart Brand. And Brand's early writings about Xerox PARC helped steer me there, although I didn't meet him for years to come. Brand's mentors, Ken Kesey and Gregory Bateson, were iconoclasts, pranksters, and whole-systems thinkers. Putting deep ecologists together with software engineers and questioning the fundamental premises of both camps was just the kind of thing Stewart Brand or Whole Earth would do. Over the years, the Whole Earth organization created cultural experiments such as the New Games Tournament, Cyberthon (a kind of geekstock for the protodigerai of 1992), the Hacker's Conference, the WELL computer conferencing system.

Although "Access to Tools" was the magazine's slogan, the Whole Earth Review editorial staff certainly included several strong and knowledgeable advocates for radically different ways of thinking about technology. In fact, founder Stewart Brand became an adviser in the early 1980s to California's governor Jerry Brown, who had created an "Office of Appropriate Technology."

The Whole Earth gang's funky old office in Sausalito was where I started thinking about where the technology I appreciated so much might all be going, and where I began to suspect that one price of my technology intoxication was a kind of somnambulism regarding its dark side. I was outraged, during my tenure as editor, when William Irwin Thompson, in The American Replacement of Nature, accused me and Stewart Brand by name of being agents of the Zoroastrian demon of mindless mechanism. Richard Nilsen, Whole Earth's late "land use" editor, put my face in the contradictions of ecology and technology every time I talked to him. Whenever people say "you can't stop progress," my friend J. Baldwin, Whole Earth's "tools guy," and a former student of Whole Earth guru R. Buckminster Fuller advises asking the counter-question: "progress towards WHAT?" One of my first issues of Whole Earth Review was devoted to "Questioning Technology," an activity I discovered most people don't want to engage in, even as a thought experiment.

As soon as I finished editing The Millennium Whole Earth Catalog, the latest version of the decades-long succession of WECs, the World Wide Web came along, and I got sucked into a fascination within a fascination that consumed the next several years of my life. In the summer of 1994 I left Whole Earth and joined a young publishing enterprise, Wired Ventures, the publishers of Wired magazine. Kevin Kelly, ever my Mephistopheles, invited me to talk to Wired about starting an online version was originally supposed to be called @Wired but ended up as HotWired, the first commercial webzine. I quit my job as HotWired's executive editor because I wanted something more collaborative, a community rather than a publication. So I created a business plan, searched for and found $2 million in financing, launched Electric Minds, named by Time Magazine as one of the ten best websites of 1996, lost financing when our backers found themselves in trouble, and folded the business in the summer of 1997. In 1998, I teamed up with a company that turns cable television franchises into high-speed Internet service providers -- I'm going to put to the test the notion that many-to-many communication media can help people build healthy local communities of the non-virtual kind.

In retrospect, my career over the last fifteen years has been an unplanned corriculum in self-taught technology criticism -- from the Institute of Noetic Sciences to Xerox PARC to Whole Earth to Wired, from Tools for Thought to Virtual Reality to The Virtual Community,to first-hand participation in the creation, rise, and fall of an Internet startup, to direct work in civic community-building. As I tell my story as an observer of and participant in the digital revolution of the 1980s and 1990s, I want to share with you some of what I've learned from reading and meeting people, from getting my hands dirty (and burned) in pursuit of a few simple questions about technology: Where are we going? Do we want to go there? Is there anything we can do about it?

As Langdon Winner pointed out in his book, Autonomous Technology, the main question in the philosophy of technology now is whether to believe it is possible for humans to maximize the noble part and minimize the worst, whether technological progress is autonomous and therefore there's little we can to to influence it, or whether it is possible to separate the benefits from the liabilities. The evidence thus far isn't good. I've been looking for examples of humans recognizing a problem caused by technological intervention in their lives, finding a solution, and making it work in action. Such people can be found, and they have much to say to us about what we need to know to find a solution that is democratic, humane, and workable. Right now, I think the first struggle is to get more than a tiny minority of people to recognize it is important to try to think together, as a civilization, about where technology came from, where it's going to, and how to have a say in what happens next.

To Be Continued...

rheingold's brainstorms | more rheingoldian writing

©1998 howard rheingold, all rights reserved worldwide.