photo by Marcellus
Richards talks with cyberspace guru Howard Rheingold about
life, the Internet and desserts.
Part one of
a two-part interview.
page 1 of 3
Rheingold is many things. I first met him in January 1999. Actually,
I met him "virtually", in his online community called
The fact that I had dinner with him this spring in New York City,
is, well -incidental. "Nice to have a face to go with the name",
as he said. But getting to know Howard is something altogether different.
We spend time together in virtual space. I usually know what he's
doing (or thinking), to some extent, on a daily basis. He shares
himself. We have conversations, called "threads", with
a few hundred people, many of whom are experts in their field, some
of whom are now my friends. Funny how the internet grows on you
when it's used in a constructive and creative way.
of the "talks" is on a conferencing software system by
Caucus. We're in Howard's
"living room" so-to-speak. There's a live audience -they're
encouraged to participate. Virtual communities are becoming an important
part of online life. As we are bombarded with information, having
those you trust around you to filter and extract the information,
and transform it into appliable knowledge -is worth it's weight
in gold. When it comes to online discourse, Howard literally wrote
the book. The following
"talk" took place throughout July and August during the
scorchy summer of 1999.
Dan Richards: Howard, I've been thinking about
what sort of questions might get us started off on the right foot.
Could you tell me a little about some of your favorite desserts
-and any fond memories you might have of enjoying them?
Howard Rheingold: For some reason, probably rooted
in genetics, I developed a taste for cooked raisins. When I was
in elementary school, the other kids hated them. I traded. I had
entire lunch trays, with the scooped-out compartments in the metal
-- the next time I saw those was in jail -- filled with cooked raisins.
So when I discovered that about once in every eighteen thousand
pies you come across a raisin pie, I was in heaven. Raisin pie!
The words send shivers down my spine. So I sought them out. And
of course, my mother made them for me. She still does, from time
to time. It's funny you should ask, but I actually do remember that
the very best raisin pie I ever had was in the wee hours in the
Grayhound bus terminal in Klamath Falls, Oregon, when I was around
14 and going to the world's fair in Seattle with my road buddy,
Kim. I remember remarking to him at the time that for the rest of
my life I might be haunted by the memory of the lunchcounter in
the Grayhound bus terminal in Klamath Falls, Oregon. We talked about
that insight on my first acid trip, and years later, he would mention
it. He's dead now so can't corroborate. In fact, in high school,
when my pals teased me about the beautiful cheerleader who was my
biology lab partner and deliberately provoked me into pubescent
testosterone frenzy, I described fantasies that involved her and
Zucchini bread season is upon us. I put a TRIPLE dose of raisins
in, and I buy ESPECIALLY fat ones, and I PLUMP them in sugar water
first. Yum! So glad you asked.
Audience Member: I understand you have a study
that is fully detached from your house. Is this due to tectonic
events in the Bay Area?
HR: It's due to my wife getting really tired of
film crews speaking foreign languages in our bedroom on the way
to my office. The last straw when I was starting up Electric Minds
and we didn't have an office and my business development director
was working in my office and we forgot about it and had dinner and
went to bed and were watching television for an hour when suddenly
my business development guy came charging out of my office.
The actual construction of the office was perhaps the most stressful
event in the history of our marriage. I was starting a company,
we had Justin living on our couch
because the office (including our guest bed) wasn't finished, and
we were undertaking a major remodeling.
The third building in the master plan was finished today. The sauna.
[ It is Howard's birthday and he's showered with well wishes. ]
AM: Happy birthday Howard! Lets see, you should
be in the garden painting right about now.
HR: I have been birthday suited all day long,
somewhat to the chagrin or entertainment of the lady who delivered
the prepared meals from our weekly service.
Email and Brainstorms first thing, then yoga, sauna, long massage,
lunch, and nekkid painting. My kinda day!
DR: (laughs) I'm preparing to go "off-line"
for a few days. Going to the wedding of our friend Jennifer Yourdon,
who along with her father Y2K guru Ed
Yourdon, wrote Time
Bomb 2000. Ed Yourdon himself, has recently gone off-line and
withdrawn from public accessibility.
With this in Mind, I'm interested in your thoughts on the future
of online communication accessibility. We're probably less than
a few years away from having inexpensive and very mobile communication
systems that will virtually allow for permanent web and IT access.
What benefits and dangers do you see developing from the type of
scenario -in which permanent web and IT access will not only be
available, but possibly desirable? Is there a line -and where should
we, as (hopefully) consciously evolving beings, draw that line?
[Opens the floor to Howard and the members of the audience]
HR: Big question, Dan, and I'm a big enough guy
to duck the answer, because I'm not sure I know what the heck I'm
talking about! ;-)
I am not hesitant to admit that I do find it a little weird and
creepy that more and more people spend our time communicating with
each other by sitting alone in rooms, staring at screens, moving
our fingers. As I've written elsewhere,
I think we have a lot of generally beneficial things to blame for
this situation: automobiles, elevators, jet planes, for example.
I will say that I've noticed that the advent of affordable cell
phones is adding something weird to the public sphere. More and
more, in parks and other public places, including, most obnoxiously,
restaurants, museums, and concert halls, there are people who are
physically present but mentally absent -- having conversations with
people who aren't there. Probably this will not be seen as weird
in a year or two.
I think we should draw lines as individuals, and from those individual
decisions, collective norms should emerge. It's rude to interrupt
a conversation with a human being in front of you to answer a telephone,
to ditch a dinner party in your living room to email from your den,
to use call waiting to decide which friend or business associate
is more important at the moment, etc. So where we draw the line,
IMO, has to do with etiquette, civility, sociability. I wrote something
about this in an article