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issue 09/01/1999

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- Software

vCity 1.0
by Dr. Adam L. Gruen

20 days in the life of a 21st century virtual city simulation.

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The Mind of Howard Rheingold
photo by Marcellus Amantangelo

Dan Richards talks with cyberspace guru Howard Rheingold about life, the Internet and desserts.

Part one of a two-part interview.

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Howard Rheingold is many things. I first met him in January 1999. Actually, I met him "virtually", in his online community called Brainstorms. 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.
The setting 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 cooked raisins.

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. Ahhh.

[ 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 for Wired.

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