Life On the Electronic Frontier:
An Interview with Howard Rheingold

By Scott London

When Vice President Al Gore introduced the idea of an "information superhighway" in a speech back in 1992, it conjured up all kinds of visions: videos on demand, personalized advertising, interactive shopping. But not long after the speech, a book called The Virtual Community appeared that offered a different perspective on the promises of the Internet. Its author, Howard Rheingold, asserted that people aren't really interested in interactive entertainment and information so much as the chance to connect with others and form relationships. Networking is a social phenomenon, he said, and the real promise of the Internet is that it brings people together in new ways. The book became a bestseller and introduced a new way of thinking and talking about cyberspace and the digital revolution. It also made Rheingold something of an celebrity, an icon of the emerging tech culture. I spoke with him at his home in Mill Valley, California.

Scott London: You first went online in the early 1980s, before many of us had personal computers, let alone modems and dial-up connections. What first sparked your interest in computer networks?

Howard Rheingold: I really wanted to connect with other people. I'm a writer. It means I spend my life alone in a room. I spent a good ten years with a typewriter. Then I got a computer. Someone told me that if I plugged my computer into my telephone, I might be able to connect with other people. I found out there were already all these flourishing bulletin board system all over. In each little community there were all these different people who had something in common.

Howard Rheingold
Howard Rheingold

I was not qualified as a defense department researcher to join the ARPAnet. And there was something called the Source that cost $20 an hour which I couldn't afford. But then something called The WELL started in the San Francisco Bay Area for $2 an hour. Great. I jumped right in and there were all these people having conversations about everything from technology policy and parenting to sports and politics. And I was hooked on it almost immediately.

London: What kind of people did you encounter online?

Rheingold: It turns out that a lot of people on The WELL in the early days were people who worked for themselves — either they were artists or writers or programmers or media producers or independent producers. They have a need for the kind of community you get when you go to an office or a factory or a school. You may not like all those people you work with or go to school with, but they are people you deal with on a daily basis. So I really needed to make a connection to people, and that made a connection. And that connection went far beyond words on a screen. We began getting involved in each other's lives, sometimes quite seriously. When people had crises, other people were there for them.

We began to notice that this was not just talking to people on a computer screen. And we started to get together in real life. A lot of this was based in the San Francisco Bay Area, before The WELL became part of the Internet and became much more international. So there was the possibility of meeting people and them becoming part of your lives. So, in short, we started to become part of each other's lives and a real community began growing up and we began to have regular get-togethers.

London: How did you transition from an online to a face-to-face community?

Rheingold: I think it was the birthday of one of the system operators. We decided to have a party at the WELL office. All these people showed up from all over the Bay Area. Gee, we had talked to each other for hours a day, so we seemed to know each other. We had a lot of fun getting together, so we made that a monthly affair.

Then different forums, or conferences as we called them, had different get-togethers. The parenting conference decided to have a softball game and picnic in the summer. We all met each other and all these kids that we were bragging about to each other. A lot of solidarity came out of that. Then the rest of the WELL came along, but the parenting conference really sponsored it.

Other groups had bridge games or poker games or went for Chinese food at different restaurants every Sunday.

London: There is a dramatic story you tell in The Virtual Community about one of the participants of this group whose son got leukemia.

Rheingold: Yes, that was Phil. In fact, Phil was the guy who organized the softball game. Several months after that, in the middle of the night, he came on and started a topic about his son's diagnosis of leukemia. There was a dramatic reaction of a kind of online support group organizing itself — both emotional support and informational support. That's been going on for, unfortunately, a number of years now. He's had remissions and relapses. That community of support has been there, including a couple of nurses and a couple of doctors and a couple of long-term survivors of leukemia.

Many other dramatic incidents have happened since then. For example, people dying, and having folks who've never met them before organize and help sit with them as they died. Or people saying "good-bye" online. Another example is a collection that we took up to get someone who was very sick from Asia to the Bay Area. So there were a lot of instances in which people reached out through those computer screens and touched each other.

I think that when you talk about virtual community, that's a name that always engenders argument. As well it should. Gee, I had a book to write and I couldn't call it "People Who Use Computers to Connect with Each Other and Then Form Relationships." I called it The Virtual Community. Communities happen between people, they don't happen between computers. The community is not inside the computer. The community is between the people. And not all people who connect through computer networks have community-like relationships. But some definitely do. Certainly in the cases of the people who helped each other out in times of need and got together and celebrated, I mean it wasn't just funerals — it was weddings and celebrations as well. These were the kinds of things that happen in any other kind of community, except that we were connected by our mutual interests and not because we live on the same block or go to the same church or work in the same office.

London: What happened when The WELL started expanding and became part of the Internet — when it went global, so to speak, and was no longer exclusively based in the Bay Area?

Rheingold: It changed my life, that's for sure. I got out of the country because people reached out through the Net and invited me. I was invited to speak in Tokyo, Paris, London, and other places, and found that I had correspondents through the Internet in those places. So when I arrived in a very foreign country in which I had never been before, there was somebody waiting for me, a native of that country who was already somewhat of a friend. We developed strong friendships, although we only see each other once or maybe twice a year. I do have a lot of friends in a lot of different places. As a typical isolated American, it certainly changed my viewpoint about the world. So, in my case, connecting to the Internet really enriched and enlarged my world.

London: You say "as a typical isolated American." Some people feel that the computer is going to make us more isolated, that it's a technology that is going to widen the gap between people since they can now communicate with each other through the computer rather than across the fence.

Rheingold: It's a very valid concern. I certainly think we're losing a lot of our connections with other people. I fear in my most pessimistic moments that the computer is simply another step down the road which we have already taken quite a few steps on. We're talking to each other on computers because we don't talk across the fence.

But doesn't it seem ironic that people fear that we might become alienated by communicating with each other through computers, when we are already staring at these boxes in our living rooms for seven or eight hours a day, slack-jawed and saying nothing to anyone on either side and not talking back to it. In regard to the kind of television hypnosis that we're stuck in, sitting in front of a screen and communicating with other people — well, you're still sitting in front of a screen, but at least you're communicating with other people.

So I think it's complicated. It's not as simple as "we could have real community, but instead we're choosing a mediated world." The mediated world has approached us from a lot of different directions and we have freely chosen our automobiles and our skyscrapers and our televisions and our telephones and our computers because they have given us power and freedom. Now we are beginning to notice there's a price to pay for them. It's all interconnected, the good stuff and the bad stuff comes together. It's just that no one told us about the bad stuff when they were selling us the technology.

London: Microsoft's Bill Gates has said that the big question now is whether the future will look more like the computer or more like the television. What's your view?

Rheingold: Well, we know where the television is — everything has to be a sound bite; everything has to be an image; ideas are okay as long as they don't take more than four or five seconds to explain; candidates and issues are commodities that are sold like cans of soup; entertainment is limited to what a few people believe the lowest common denominator is; and you can't talk back to it .

London: Although that might change in the near future.

Rheingold: Well, is it television if you can talk back to it? Does talking back to it consist of just having a lot more buttons on your channel changer? Or does it mean that we could broadcast this show, for example, from an Internet node?

I think the real power of the medium is the many-to-many aspect. Every computer connected to the network is potentially a printing press and broadcasting station and place of assembly. If it becomes monopolized by a few large corporations that send us a lot of stuff, but don't allow us to send them very much, then it's more of the same.

London: There have been a lot of discussions about the political ramifications of computer networks and the emergence of "electronic democracy." You devote a chapter of The Virtual Community to this idea. Do you think we're moving in the direction of electronic democracy, where these new technologies allow us to participate in the dialogue of democracy in a new way?

Rheingold: There is a great potential in this tool that can be used by informed, active people to revitalize what is really the root of democracy: citizens communicating with each other. Democracy is not just about voting, it's about citizens talking with each other about the issues which concern them. We've lost a great deal of that in the age of the mass media. Our issues and our candidates are packaged and sold to us in prime time. People are busy, they commute, they work, they have to feed their kids and get them off to school. They don't have time to go to a lot of meetings. Being able to use bulletin board systems and computer networks to at least have 10 or 15 minutes contact with each other on a regular basis could lead to citizens beginning to communicate with each other again.

However, I fear that American journalism has failed miserably to explain to Americans what the potential of this technology is. I think most people when they hear about the Internet go: "Oh, porn!" Or, "Dangerous teenage hackers!" Are they going to say, "A printing press on every desktop"? Are they going to say, "A place of assembly in every home"? Are they going to say, "Electronic town halls"? I don't think so.

London: You say the media has failed to explore the full potential of this new medium. Yet, at the same time, the Internet has been the source of almost endless hype in the media.

Rheingold: Yes. Both are true. The superficial aspects of the Internet — 500 channels and everybody-will-get-rich-tomorrow — have been overhyped. The number of column inches devoted to porn on the Internet, sex on the Internet, boy-meets-girl on the Internet, dangerous hackers breaking into people's computers on the Internet ... all of which sell newspapers and get ratings points on television. Compare that with the number of column inches or the number of minutes on prime time devoted to the potential of technology for citizens, or for education, or to what new telecommunications legislation is all about. The ratio of crap to substance is huge.

London: How many hours do you spend on-line per day?

Rheingold: Many hours a day. Of course, I have a life. You're here in my office. You can look out and see my garden. I spent all day Sunday in the garden. I have a daughter whom I spend a lot of time with. I've found a balance. It's not easy. You need to find a balance because it's easy to just get sucked into it.

London: Do you think the day will come when we work primarily from home?

Rheingold: Will more than one person out of ten spend more than one day out of ten at home? Well, I can tell you from a lifetime of doing it that it's a peculiar mentality that can put up with being alone all day. I think that most people really do need the sort of community you find in an office. Most people are always going to go into an office. If you are a member of a working group and you are not there physically, decisions are made without you.

Telecommuting has its advantages and it has its limits. I think we need to find that sweet spot in between where it helps the environment, it helps people, but it doesn't alienate us and it doesn't cause our organizations to fall apart by centrifugal force.

London: Kevin Kelly of Wired magazine suggests that the future may involve people working in multiple settings and having multiple avenues of work. He says that telecommuting may be just one of many options.

Rheingold: I think it's not as simple as the simplifications make it. Technology is causing a real gap between those at the top and those at the bottom. It's also allowing a huge number of people in the middle — people who wouldn't be able to buy medicine or educate their kids — to do those things. It enables people who weren't able to make a decent living able to make a decent living.

London: How will the Internet change in the next, say, ten years?

Rheingold: I wrote a book in 1985 called Tools for Thought about where things would be ten years into the future. If you went to the right places and talked to the right people, it was fairly easy to see where things were going. It's not so easy now. The horizon is about two years. People talk about "Web years" as being about a month now. I think the pace of change is so rapid and chaotic that it's very hard to predict what's happening.

I wish that as citizens we could learn more about the potential of the new technologies and jam our foot in the door. We need to say: There has to be a place for the public sector here. Some of those trillions of dollars of profit ought to be taxed to provide access to schools, for citizens to have access to government and to participate. We need to protect the ability of the next Apple or Microsoft to grow out of a garage, instead of being dominated, ironically, by Microsoft or NBC or somebody else.

This interview was adapted from the public radio series "Insight & Outlook."