Howard Rheingold

Wired to Virtual Reality

by Jon Lebkowsky


photograph by Marcellus Amantangelo

Howard Rheingold is best known for his books exalting immersive multimedia (Virtual Reality) and computer-mediated social interaction (The Virtual Community), and because of these books many view him as cheerleader for new technologies. However, Howard also edited Whole Earth Review, a journal known for its ambivalence toward modern technology, and he is currently beginning work on a book that will question the impact of technology and the concept of progress. As part of his research, Howard has been studying the Amish, and the way they make decisions about which technologies they will adopt, based on their assessment of the long-range impact on community life. He's also been paying attention to the technorealists, a group of writers who advocate discussions and explorations of technology that are neither extremely pro (technoutopian) nor extremely con (Luddite). Rheingold was interviewed in March, when he appeared here as keynote speaker for South by Southwest Multimedia. - J.L.

Austin Chronicle: You've said recently that you're feeling critical of technology, and I'm wondering how you got to that point... when did you start to feel critical and want to step back?

Howard Rheingold: It started when I began reading critiques and reviews of my book, Virtual Reality. People were not so much critiquing the book as they were the idea of virtual reality. The notion that we're moving into a totally artificial world is kind of appalling to a lot of people. I didn't really get into deep criticism of the idea in that book, but the last chapter of The Virtual Community was a compendium of all the different ways you could see this online world as a symptom of something that's not so good. That got me to thinking about it.

An awful lot of people who read that book saw me as a technological utopian. I didn't feel that way, but obviously my enthusiasm for virtual communities must have conveyed that impression. I read a couple of contemporary, critical books, Cliff Stoll's Silicon Snake Oil and Sven Birkerts' Gutenberg Elegies, and I found myself really dissatisfied. Not that I particularly disagree that it's important to have some second thoughts about this kind of massive-hype rush into the wired world, but I felt that they were shallow. I didn't know exactly why, because like just about everybody, I have absolutely no sense of history. Where did the whole notion of progress come from in the first place? Well, it turns out that it was an invention. The world did not always assume that tomorrow will be different from today, and better than today, and it will be because of technology. I found Lewis Mumford, a well-read and educated literary critic, who wrote books about cities and technology. He wrote a book called The Myth of the Machine way back in the 1960s, really before contemporary computer technology got going.

AC: People were already thinking critically about technology?

HR: Well, a couple of people were. Mumford, a marvelous writer, who almost nobody knows of today, wrote this book about the myth of the machine that really had to do with a technology that does not have a visible artifact, and which kind of took over around 4,000-5,000 years ago. This is the notion of organizing humans as components in a big machine, with a hierarchical bureaucratic control.

AC: The forerunner of modern government and modern corporations?

HR: Yeah... starting with the pharaohs. When kingship turned into god-kingship and these massive projects, like the pyramids, were organized. It was really a new thing, in terms of human organization. Progressively, the invention of what we think of as technology, the artifacts, has reinforced a social structure in which we have benefited by getting better food and more food, cities, medicine, science, education, and literacy and all of those wonderful things.

AC: Television?

HR: I'm really talking about the beginning of things, long before what we know about technology, but along with that, a kind of increasing acceptance of humans as components, specialists, in a much larger organizational structure. Mumford naturally leads to Jacques Ellul, who wrote his book, The Technological Society, in French in 1954. He takes a much gloomier view. In fact, he thought it was pretty much all over, in terms of humans having anything to do about it, in 1954.

He expanded the notion of technology to include what he calls technique, rather simplistically defined as any regular algorithmic method for doing something more efficiently. The rationalization of education and warfare and cities and medicine and science and politics subsumes technology. Technology is a subset of technique, and technique is something that emerged powerfully as a governing force in people's lives in a limited place and time. In England and France in the 19th century, several things happened. One was the enclosure of public lands, the disenfranchisement of peasants from what had historically been "the commons," and the creation of private property, the granting of that property to individuals who profited from it, and the pauperization of everyone else.

Of course, we've all forgotten about that, but it was bloody, and it was enforced by military action. At that same time, a process that had been building for several hundred years emerged as capitalism, and the complex of technologies around steam power, that we think of as the Industrial Revolution... all of those things happened at once. Some things happened to society... age-old organic affiliations: the family, the guild, the village were atomized to the individual. There were some benefits to that, such as liberty, as we know it, the rights of man that were huge issues in the French and American revolutions. The creation of fluid society that could not, did not have the means to resist the rapid conversion of humans into components of a machine was another aspect of it. All of these technologies were hyped, from the steam age on, and the shadow sides forgotten, not publicized. Social issues were forgotten, and we were left with the world that was created, and with very little memory of what was before. Now, it's really not so simple as giving up technology and doing without antibiotics... it's really a matter of beginning to think about what kind of control we have and who's dictating the terms.

A concrete example of that abstraction is the automobile highway infrastructure in the United States, which has dictated our landscape and our social structure and our industrial structure for the last 50 years. Very few people know the real reason why we don't have electric trolleys... why we've got automobiles and freeways instead. The fact was that in the 1920s-1930s, there were electric trolley systems in most of the major cities that did not isolate people in their automobiles, did not create a landscape that was not for humans, was mostly for machines. Mass transit brought people together, it was a public enterprise which encouraged community.

What then happened in the early 1950s, was that General Motors set up companies that bought out the trolley companies in the 50 largest American cities and tore up the tracks, mounted a propaganda campaign about why buses and automobiles are better. The oil companies, the tire companies, and the automobile companies, along with the military, who wanted the infrastructure of the highway system, created this highway tax we all pay. It was a part of our gasoline tax that can only go toward building highways. There was an attempt in Congress in the 1960s to divert a portion of the highway tax to build public transportation systems. We could have had a public transportation system in the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, that would have brought people from the isolated parts of the Bay together without the bottlenecks of bridges much less expensively than it could be done today, but that was defeated in Congress. There's a huge amount of money spent propagandizing people about why "progress is our most important product."

AC: There seems to be a relationship, as in the thing with the automobile, between a solution that juices the economy, and a solution that favors the primacy of the individual. The reason that people take to automobiles as they do is that they can have their own, and determine for themselves exactly what their route is going to be. And it's a more individualistic form of travel than mass transit. At the same time, it makes a lot of money for a lot of people.

HR: Well, when you say the economy, you're really talking about a system in which an increasing amount of consumer goods have to be produced and then sold in order for the engine to keep going. But is it really necessary to have 45 brands of soft drink in aluminum cans? We didn't really think about that.

AC: It enhances the individual's choices, but it leads to confusion.

HR: Artificial choices. It's like when you ask a kid, "Would you like to go to the park, or would you like to go to the zoo?" They have a choice, but you have constrained the universe of choices for them. Small farmers didn't really have a choice. Agribusiness has nearly put the small farms out of business. That was touted as a good thing. Now we can have fewer people producing more food. Well, food isn't exactly what it used to be, and the connection between the food we eat and where it came from has been totally lost. The small enterprises, the mom-and-pop grocery stores, have disappeared. So when you say "the economy," you're really saying "the mass economy." A perfect example is the tomato harvesting machine developed at the University of California. It costs about $50,000. It's really a marvelous machine. It moves through the fields, it picks the entire tomato plant, it shakes the tomatoes loose and sorts them. Of course, they had to develop a tomato that would withstand that sort of treatment, that's a much tougher tomato, it's a much less flavorful tomato, and you have to be able to afford $50,000 machines to farm tomatoes that way.

Has it ever occurred to anybody why we have this agricultural system post-WWII that's based on moving an enormous amount of ammonium phosphate around? Using petroleum to move it around, pumping it into the land, depleting the soil, making it impossible to grow things if you don't do it that way - it's kind of like a heroin addiction, everything's fine as long as you keep pumping it in. At the end of WWII there was an enormous capacity in this country for producing explosives. We had way too much capacity for producing ammonium nitrate after we stopped having a need to blow things up. The U.S. Department of Agriculture really pushed the fact that you can pump it into soil that would not previously grow anything, and divert water, build big dams, and produce crops in order to keep agribusiness going. So there's an interlocking complex of technologies.

One of the results of that is that not only have we lost family farms, but subsistence farmers all over the world have been forced to sell out, and move to the big cities, creating slums. And there's no work for them. Meanwhile, the diversity of crops has diminished by several orders of magnitude... there used to be 2,000 kinds of rice in the Philippines, for instance, and now there's two or three.

AC: There's a common assumption that this condition is transitional, and all you have to do is retrain people so that they can do something different, so that they can, for instance, produce computer games instead of grow tomatoes.

HR: Certainly a lot of people in Papua, New Guinea, instead of working all day to grow sweet potatoes, are going to have the opportunity to sit in booths in windowless concrete buildings and keypunch data for credit card receipts for rich people on the other side of the world. Are the new jobs that are being created really humane?

AC: They're packaged like chickens.

HR: Yes. The fact is that no matter how much we hear the propaganda about it, technology does create unemployment. And I'm not talking only about capitalism. Communism assumed the same thing. Lenin said "we're going to have a classless society in which there will be no managers. The workers will manage the factories. Of course, in order to have modern industrial technology, we're going to have to have some technical leadership." So Marx, Lenin, and the whole communist experiment was as enslaved by and devoted to this mega-industrial transformation of humans into components, into an ever more complex, less understandable, less human-scale machine. So when I say technology, I'm really talking about mega-technology, technology of the scale and pace that we have today.

I think a lot of people are beginning to wonder whether the town they grew up in is any better now. There used to be these old hand-crafted buildings, and they were all different from one another, and now we've got these gigantic glass and steel buildings... they all look alike, and people really can't afford to live in them. Only corporations can afford to live in them.

Life in suburbia turned out to be kind of sterile. Where did community go? The 1950s and 1960s were times of unprecedented prosperity for the part of the world that bought into the consumer society. And of course we don't really see the people in the banana republics who were enslaved so that we could have bananas.

AC: Sort of like Fritz Lang's Metropolis, right?

HR: Sort of like Fritz Lang's Metropolis! And William Blake. In fact, a lot of people saw this coming. So we're living in this thing, and we're hypnotized by it, we don't even question it. Revolutionaries conceived their revolutions within the assumed structure of continuing technological progress. I certainly don't have any idea where we go from here, but it seems to me the first step is to recognize that we're being somnambulistic about it.

Is it really out of our control? Or do we just assume that it's out of our control? Now we've got the new phenomenon of the transnational corporations and globalizations of markets, corporations that have no loyalty to any particular state. They can move labor around the world. If too many people pay too much attention to the fact that eight-year-old kids are working for a dollar a week to make Nike shoes, then they move it out of that country to another country. There are 250 million child laborers who feed this technology apparatus all around the world.

AC: We don't read about that in "The Long Boom" issue of Wired.

HR: No, it's invisible. Half the people in the world have never made a phone call. A lot of them are in India and China, Mexico and Brazil. So when we talk about "the world," we're really talking about this small sector of it. In fact, all this stuff I'm talking about really did come from Europe, and there is a history and a provenance of these ideas. The idea of progress, and the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution... these all came from a series of thinkers who did a great job coming up with a great method for controlling the physical world. And it works marvelously well.

AC: Do you think it's really important for more people to be wired?

HR: I think you have to consider that at several levels. The most obvious is the magical thinking that's going on about wiring the school system. It's a sexy political issue: "Let's bring the Internet to every classroom." But it's not going to solve the problems of overcrowding, underpayment, crumbling infrastructure, people not wanting to pay taxes, the social problems in schools, the malnourishment of schoolchildren, the exodus of qualified teachers because they don't get paid anything... none of that has anything to do with the Internet in the classroom.

At another level, after putting the wires in the classrooms, even paying for access, what do you have? You've got a bunch of teachers who don't know how to use this thing, who are somewhat intimidated by it, who are not paid extra to go to classes to learn it. There's no budget for training.

What about maintenance? Anyone who's worked with a computer network knows that if you don't have a system administrator available, it will break, and it won't come up again.

So it's poorly thought out. It's a patch on a patch on a patch. I'm all for the Internet as an educational device within the right kind of social infrastructure, but we're in a society where people are reluctant to pay enough taxes to keep their public libraries open, and suddenly we're transferring our magical thinking to the next new technology.

Community networks... are they connected to the needs of the community? Are they going to help people train each other? Is money going to flow into the community? Around the community? Or out of the community? Are the people in the community going to have any say about it?

Considering the importance of technology in our lives and the enormous leaps in power that information technologies and biotechnologies are about to take, there's too little discussion. It's not in the political discourse, except in magical thinking terms. People aren't talking about it at the local level, they assume they can't understand it. Engineers are pumped out of MIT and Cal Tech and other universities every year to design and create the next generations of technology. None of them was required to take a class about where these ideas came from and what happens to the people who try to stand in the way and what kinds of ways of life have disappeared. This is to say nothing of the connection between genocides of native peoples, many of whom happen to live where there's coal, uranium petroleum, bauxite. The destruction of their environments is hidden from people who read the mass media. What used to be journalism is now a wholly owned subsidiary of entertainment. This is not news: Ben Bagdikian wrote about it in The Media Monopoly and Noam Chomsky has written about it. 25 or 30 years ago there were thousands of owners of newspapers, radio stations, and television stations. Now there are dozens. In fact, most of the power to influence and persuade people in the world is held by Rupert, Ted, and Bill. I don't even have to say their last names!

AC: You said you're going to visit the Amish?

HR: Yeah, I'm working on it. They're very shy of journalism. Not many people would want to accept their kind of rigid authoritarian society. But they have some things we don't have. They've got community. They don't participate in Social Security or any of the welfare state infrastructure, and are in fact exempted from it. They take care of their own. If someone is born with birth defects, or someone has an accident, and they're crippled, or old and retired, family and community take care of them. Of course, it's a patriarchal society, the rules are very rigid, large families are encouraged. Families of nine or 10 or 11 or 12 kids. And they definitely use the horse, and not the automobile, because they don't want people traveling further than their immediate community. So they've got communities where within horse distance most people have hundreds of cousins, and they all work the land together, they're incredibly effective farmers.

They've got a demographic problem, because of their population growth. They can't afford to buy farmland for the new generations, so now they're going into crafts and small industries. But they've got beliefs about technology that are very interesting. They don't believe in connecting to the electrical grid. That's sort of like Babylon to them.

AC: Do they cut out electricity altogether?

HR: They use batteries. They use pneumatic power and hydraulic power. They use modern baling machines that are adapted so that they can be pulled by horses. It's not that they offer a model for the rest of the world. It's just that you have to go to the Amish to find a model of a society that evaluates every single technology before they adopt it.

AC: Where technology is concerned, I guess there's not a single answer that works across the board?

HR: The idea that there's a single answer is really an example of the kind of thinking that got us into this. We used to have something called the Office of Technology Assessment. Congress authorized it in the Carter Administration. It was bipartisan. It had a tiny budget, $22 million: Most cities have water departments with budgets bigger than that. They did a pretty good job of bringing a spectrum of scientists and citizens and people from local governments together to talk about technologies and what the impacts might be. But remember right after the Congressional elections of 1994, when there was a big budget cutting? That was used as an opportunity to do away with the OTA.

It's like our society is this automobile with no brakes heading downhill in a hilly countryside at night, and we've turned the lights off. Having the lights on doesn't guarantee that you're going to be able to negotiate all the way down with no brakes, but having them off guarantees that you're going to have a problem. We lurch from disaster to disaster. That's how the nuclear power debate was settled... disaster. There's a huge war on drugs, but I don't know how many people die of marijuana abuse every year, maybe none. However, we accept 50,000 deaths on the highway, and don't even think about it. We've assimilated the costs of technology. I think most people can look around where they came from and see that, gee, where there used to be countryside, there's now something that looks pretty much the same anywhere in the world. There's a shopping mall, there's a multiplex theatre. If you're in Japan there's a great big Pachinko parlor. There are suburbs. There are high rises. Rich people live at the very top, middle classes live in the middle, and at ground level are vast slums. It's not going to get any better.

There are three mega-problems that have to be addressed together. There's population growth, there's the per capita consumption level, this whole consumer society which is based on converting non-consumers into big consumers. We want everyone in the world to consume the way we do in America. That's where the long boom comes from. And the third aspect is technology. Growth of technology. You can't just tackle technology development. You can't just tackle population growth. And you can't just tackle per capita consumption. Somehow, there's got to be a way to tackle all three. I fantasize at times that there is a technological fix. If we could genetically engineer a plant that grows rapidly, like kudzu... that's nutritious, mildly euphoriant, and contraceptive, as long as you're using it. (Laughter). Think of all the good that would do. Of course, one is always suspicious of technological fixes, because you don't know where they're going to lead.